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Troubled East Timor could be tourism paradise

Reuters - August 8, 2007

Ed Davies, Dili – It has pristine beaches, lush highlands and an exotic cultural mix – and lies just a few hours flight east of the Indonesian resort island of Bali.

But currently almost the only overseas visitors to East Timor are foreign troops, journalists and aid workers after Asia's youngest nation descended into turmoil last year.

The former Portuguese colony, covering an area slightly smaller than Hawaii, has just staged presidential and parliamentary elections which it is hoped will help restore stability in the country five years after independence.

"Now there are not so many tourists because of security," said Tito Labato, who had helped manage a privately run tourist information centre on the beach front, before it closed in March.

The centre, below an Australian-run bar, had been arranging trips for about eight people a month – mainly westerners, Singaporeans and Thais – to the mountains or for diving. "But I think we will open again," he added cheerfully.

Early attempts to build up tourism were rocked last year after the sacking of 600 rebellious soldiers triggered violence that killed 37 people and drove 150,000 from their homes. Foreign troops had to be brought in to restore order.

About 30,000 displaced people remain in makeshift camps dotted around Dili, many in tents right next to the airport or in squares in the town centre, forced to hang their clothes out to dry on fencing next to the elegant colonial-style Timor Hotel.

Security has improved since last year but sporadic violence, vandalism and arson persist, with an estimated 50 percent unemployment rate helping fan gang culture among bored youths.

Ann Turner, vice president of the Tourism Association of East Timor, said developing the sector was key for the young nation, since it could employ many people swiftly and provide careers.

"It (tourism) also tends to look to younger people for staff, exactly the people who need to be taken off the streets and given some meaning in life," added Turner, a former journalist who launched a dive centre with her husband in 2001.

Village-like feel

East Timor, one of the world's poorest nations with only around $400 income per capita, has more than $1 billion from rich energy resources in the Timor sea in a New York bank account. But the oil and gas sector will require specialized workers and will only be able to make a small dent in unemployment.

Despite still bearing scars from last year's violence and more bloodshed and destruction after a 1999 vote to break away from Indonesia, the sleepy capital Dili is not without charm.

It has a village-like feel with goats and pigs wandering the streets and some attractive Portuguese buildings in the city, which sprawls along stretch of coast backed by scrubby hills. There is little traffic, apart from the white land cruisers, part of the United Nations' expansive operations in the country.

Nonetheless, Western nations warn about non essential travel. "If you decide to travel to East Timor, you should avoid all unnecessary movement at night and exercise extreme caution," the Australian government says on a travel advice Web site.

Currently, Dili's tiny international airport only has a handful of flights a day from Darwin in Australia and Bali.

Pygmy seahorses and dugongs

East Timor offers spectacular diving with rare creatures ranging from pygmy seahorses to dugongs frequenting its waters. Turner said that her dive centre, FreeFlow, had moved from catering for mainly NGO and UN workers to regular tourists, once word of the quality of the diving got around.

"Then 2006. All tourists cancelled, apart from one or two intrepid types," she said, adding that they were now starting to get bookings again and were investing in more equipment. She said tourist numbers were unclear given a lack of data, but guessed overall East Timor arrivals were in the hundreds, or at most the low thousands, annually before the recent troubles. Turner also said via email that "high end, low volume" tourism was also being developed in coffee plantation and upland areas, as well as eco-resorts on nearby Atauro island.

During recent election campaigning a new party set up by resistance hero, Xanana Gusmao, referred to the importance of tourism, while Turner said the state budget for the Directorate of Tourism had been increased sharply this year.

In another encouraging move, the first national park has just been set up on the eastern tip of East Timor, covering 123,600 hectares (305,400 acres) of rich coral reefs and one of the largest intact lowland rainforests in the region.

Few hotels

But East Timor certainly faces challenges from a lack of tourist infrastructure.

"There are only a handful of hotels outside Dili, the transport facilities can be hard work and it you're intending to get off the beaten track you must be prepared to rough it...," a forward in the Lonely Planet guide to East Timor says.

The guide book includes a poetically written section by the charismatic former president Gusmao, who spent years in East Timor's hills leading an ill-equipped band of guerrillas fighting Indonesian rule.

Portugal ruled the country for centuries before withdrawing in 1975. Later that year, Indonesian troops invaded and annexed East Timor. After suffering an often harsh occupation, East Timorese voted overwhelmingly for independence in 1999, becoming fully independent in 2002.

For tourism to thrive East Timor clearly needs stability now.

President Jose Ramos-Horta, who won a Nobel Peace prize for overseeing the campaign against Indonesian rule from overseas, told Reuters in a recent interview that East Timor needed to focus on fighting poverty and improving security.

The former journalist also said he expected East Timor to get less media coverage from now. "I believe that Timor will disappear from the news because media channels, the TV clips, rarely ever talk about positive developments."