By Simon Zhelyazkov of Backpack Moments
Timor Leste is one of the newest countries in the world, having gained independence in 2002 after centuries of occupation and exploitation by various foreign powers. For the past 20 years, Timor Leste has been struggling to find its way into the world economy with its leaders debating whether it should:
- Extract natural resources from its relatively huge exclusive economic zone;
- Invest in human development, education, and entrepreneurship in hopes to jump-start a service economy similar to Singapore’s success story in the 90s;
- Depend on foreign investment and international aid to combat widespread poverty and malnourishment;
- Develop sustainable tourism and hospitality infrastructure to see it become a popular holiday destination and compete with neighboring Indonesian islands like Bali and Flores
The answer is, like any economist would tell you, somewhere in the middle. Considering that more than 50% of Timor Leste’s population is under 21 years old, the future is literally in the country’s hands.
Nonetheless, one cannot help but notice the relative ease of using tourism to rapidly develop an economy. Foreign money directly and voluntarily flowing into the hands of the Timorese is much easier than negotiating maritime borders with regional powers like Australia, relying on caveats-ridden foreign investment by China to develop new infrastructure, and hoping the domestic political arena is stable enough (which it never has been in Timor Leste) to support focused growth.
I’d like to argue just that: tourism should be the cornerstone of Timor Leste’s development plan for the next few decades.
State of Tourism in Timor Leste Today
Timor Leste’s lack of mass tourism can be easily explained by the recent independence of the country. Back in 1999, the Indonesian withdrawal saw widespread destruction, with almost complete razing of the capital Dili. A similar fate hit other regional cities in the country, like Baucau and Maliana, whereas provinces in the east that were spared the violence had no tourism infrastructure to begin with anyway.
Importance of the UN
In a peculiar set of circumstances, tourism in Timor Leste began with the UN provisional mission to support the nascent state.
So-called ‘International’ hotels were built in regional capitals to cater to the high-end clientele that the UN brought – observers, foreign embassies’ dignitaries, NGO workers, cooperation agencies, etc. They were quickly built, and low-quality, but since competition and supply were so low, the prices were high and remain high to this day.
Timor Leste has got to be one of the countries with the most striking disparity between prices and quality.
Accommodation options outside the capital
The majority of high-end hotels in Timor Leste are concentrated in Dili. Leave for the provinces and lodging is limited to Portuguese-era Pousadas – colonial houses or former administrator’s residences now transformed into quaint hotels or family-run guesthouses.
The Pousada de Baucau for example is a marvelous example of colonial architecture and a popular meeting spot in East Timor’s second city. It’s the only establishment in the town with any wifi (not that it’s good) and the place to stay if you have the budget for it – at 80$ per night, it’s 4-5 times the cost of the average guesthouse. No matter where you stay, there is something to do in Baucau for any budget.
Timor Leste is not a big country. However, the lack of infrastructure makes certain regions a lot more remote than it looks on the map. This coupled with the limited availability of government funds has led to the emergence of community-based tourism.
Local residents, either collectively or individually, invite tourists to visit their communities with the provision of overnight accommodation or other related tourism services.
The Power of the Community
I saw firsthand the power of community organization in preparation for the 2023 Total Solar Eclipse in Timor Leste. The local leader in Com, the closest place Timor Leste has to a seaside resort and the point where the eclipse was longest, coordinated guesthouses and managed to create up to 100 new beds to answer the overwhelming demand for lodging.
Valu Beach and Jaco Island
One can see similar examples of community-based tourism in and around the only national park in the country – Nino Konis Santana on the east end of the island.
Take for example the extreme tip where Valu Beach faces Jaco Island. Jaco Island is an uninhabited place sacred to the locals and very hard to get to. There are only 2 possible ways to spend the night on Valu Beach – one private and one community-based. The latter pretty much matches the quality of the private one but at a much lower price and has a much more authentic feel to it given the family dinner and the setting.
At least 70 people are engaged in community-based tourism in nearby Tutuala, Valu Beach, and Nino Konis Santana National Park on a rotational basis. Fishermen take visitors to Jaco Island on their boats and catch fish to prepare for dinner, women take care of the bungalows, and others organize treks, produce and sell traditional tais, etc. The many clans of the region have gotten together despite a lack of funding, and each is in charge of a different natural resource – the beaches, the mountains, the caves, the water, etc. It’s one of the best examples of sustainable tourism in Timor Leste.
Atauro Island, some 35 km off the coast of Timor Leste, has long been an opportunity for sustainable tourism. Some of the eco-lodges on the small island are almost as old as the country itself, but new ones pop up every year. Eco-lodges on Atauro provide green housing through solar energy, waste treatment, and recycling efforts.
Mountains and Highland Areas
Timor Leste’s interior is mountainous with the highest peak – Tatamailau – as high as 2986 m. In the highland areas of Timor Leste, tourism is almost entirely a private venture. In towns such as Hatu Builico, the gateway to Tatamailau, the only accommodation options are local families’ guesthouses. Locals also offer tours and treks, but they are in no way as organized as their community-based counterparts in the East.
In other high places such as Same, Maubisse, Maliana, and Baguia, close to the sacred Mount Matebian, locals organize walking treks, horseback rides, and cultural immersion opportunities by inviting tourists inside their homes to listen to stories from the elders and partake in traditions.
Scuba Diving is seen as one of the most promising leisure activities in Timor Leste. Multiple highly professional diving centers have been established near the capital of Dili and due to the preserved coral reefs and unprecedented marine life diversity, scuba diving is one tourism venture that’s growing quickly.
Scuba diving companies take divers to various places along Timor Leste’s north coast and Atauro Island. The country is inside the Coral Triangle and as such, diving is a particularly lucrative type of tourism.
Timor Leste Sustainable Tourism Plan for the Future
The government of Timor Leste created a comprehensive Strategic Development Plan for 2011-2030. It is indeed well thought-out and some of the targets have already been met as of 2023.
When it comes to tourism, Timor Leste recognizes the importance of sustainability and creating an incentive scheme that aligns the interests of locals, government, tourists, and NGOs.
The ultimate 2030 goal is rather vague:
“Timor-Leste will have a well-developed tourist industry attracting a large number of international visitors, contributing substantially to national and local community income and creating jobs throughout the nation”.
However, it’s broken up into various subgoals and the country itself has been divided into tourist zones.
- Eastern Tourist Zone with a focus on pristine tropical beaches, awesome mountain scenery, adventure trekking, historical Portuguese colonial architecture, and a glimpse into small village life;
- Central Tourist Zone with a focus on creating a dynamic and cosmopolitan Dili as the ultimate gateway to the rest of the country. The rest of the region will focus on adventure tourism in the highlands and diving on Atauro;
- Western Tourist Zone with a focus on presenting Timorese heritage and history of local communities through eco-lodges, art centers, and modern museums. The region also boasts Timor’s coffee plantations where only organic coffee is grown – as of now the locals simply don’t have the money for pesticides or fertilizers.
It’s also promising that Timor Leste is looking to further develop international tourism relationships with Australia, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, and China as they begin to take their stand on the world’s travel stage.
Opportunities to Look Out For
Timor Leste’s location is both its greatest asset and its greatest limitation. On one side, its remoteness guarantees its continuous preservation of its pristine nature. Fewer visitors make it easier to maintain sustainable practices and local actors are not inclined to cheat and break the law, as there is little profit to be made at the moment.
Flights and Connectedness
On the other side, getting to Timor Leste is expensive as the capital Dili has regular international commercial flights to only Darwin in Australia and Bali in Indonesia. The price for these flights is relatively high. Many in Bali may consider hopping over to Timor Leste on their visa runs if the flights were priced on par with those to Singapore and Kuala Lumpur.
As such, bringing popular regional carriers like Lion Air and Air Asia will allow connections to the rest of Southeast Asia. With the imminent ascension of Timor Leste as a full member of ASEAN, we may see just that.
Opening up the huge Baucau Airport for bigger planes could also allow for flights to more destinations in Australia, New Zealand, and one day maybe even the continental US.
Growth brings both positive and negative effects. Even though Timor Leste is set to become unique in that tourism is community-led and really is the tide that lifts all boats, a rapid increase in visitors could have ravaging results.
As such, it is important that Timorese leaders be frequently reminded of the end goal – not unfettered economic growth, but a steady sustainable initiative that puts the people and the environment first.
About the Author
Simon is a backpacker very much into authentic cultural experiences. He travels to these off-path places to get his dose of dopamine by meeting locals and getting to live their life if even for just a little bit.
See more of his writing and photograpy at https://backpackmoments.com/