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East Timor's bid to boost tourism

Radio Australia - August 6, 2009

Kerry O'Brien, presenter: It's now 10 years since the people of East Timor were finally given the chance to decide their political future and vote in a referendum on independence. But the impoverished young nation's Government would prefer to look forward.

It's trying to sell East Timor to the world as a destination for foreign tourists and next month, East Timor will host its first international sporting event – a bike race for cyclists from around the globe. But while the Government argues East Timor is safe for visitors, Sara Everingham reports on a still fragile state.

Sara Everingham, reporter: It might not be the Tour de France, but East Timor's political leaders are pinning their hopes on an international cycling to put their country on the world's tourist map. Foreign riders already training with East Timor's national cycling team, for the Tour de Timor – a five day race through the remote hills of this nation.

Luiz Vieira, cyclist: I think it will be very difficult, as you can see it's very hot, humid, there are some difficult climbs, long roads. It will be great. I'm very excited.

Sara Everingham: East Timor's President says putting up $90,000 in prize money from the public purse is a worthwhile investment.

Jose Ramos Horta, East Timor President: I always try to provide our people with challenges, challenges that are positive, not only physical endurance, but make them a proud of the country.

Sara Everingham: Less than a decade ago, the people of East Timor were still fighting for their independence, the end of this month marks 10 years since they voted in a UN sponsored referendum to reject 25 years of Indonesian rule. Since then the country has struggled to maintain stability.

In 2006 Australian and other foreign troops had to restore order after a mutiny split East Timor's new army. In 2008 President Jose Ramos Horta was fighting for his life after being shot, allegedly by rebel army officers. He's now trying to reassure the world East Timor is a safe place for foreign visitors.

Jose Ramos Horta: It takes a lot of effort, first to restore peace and security in the country, to heal the wounds, and same time as we create conditions of peace and security, we try to create an economy.

Sara Everingham: But many East Timorese who fled their homes during the violence of 2006 are still refugees in their own country. The Government's been paying thousands of people living in makeshift camps to pack up and go home. For many, the return isn't easy.

Ivo Noel (translated): Life at the moment is very difficult because with us youth, we don't get proper education, we can't find any jobs, there are no jobs, so what are we supposed to do?

Sara Everingham: East Timor spent millions of dollars importing rice for its impoverished people. Much of that money coming from the biggest revenue earner, its share of the lucrative Timor Gap oil and gas fields. But some foreign investors see great potential in East Timor's other natural assets for a thriving tourist industry.

Anne Turner, tourism consultant: I think in Timor state we have probably the best shore diving in the world, where you just walk straight in off the beach. You have a world class coral reef that's within a very, very short swim, beautiful, beautiful coral and lots and lots of different species of animals, including some very rare ones.

Sara Everingham: East Timor's biggest tourist market is Australia, but the Australian Government's warning for East Timor says reconsider your need to travel.

Jose Ramos Horta: I gave up, you know, because I have talked to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, Stephen Smith, countless times to the Ambassador here, who is here with his wife, his daughter even came to visit him. He goes around town with his wife, without security. And yet in Canberra, they say, you know, security level, phase level I think is 4 or something like that.

Sara Everingham: Most foreign visitors to East Timor aren't here on holiday, they're here keeping the peace. Almost a decade since the first deployment of Australian peacekeepers in East Timor, there are now 650 Australian soldiers here, their commander says they are making a difference.

Brigadier Bill Sowry, International Stabilisation Force: There has been an enormous amount of progress. The confidence on the streets, the traffic is a very good example of what is going on. The development that's going on in terms of infrastructure, roads, and general cleanliness.

Sara Everingham: The Australians are now turning their attention to training the local military and police. But it will be years before East Timor is ready to stand on its own two feet. Many East Timorese say only they can assure a prosperous future for their country.

Ivo Noel (translated): We can't sit down and wait for things to happen and see what our nation gives us, we have to do something for our nation that will give us some stability in our lives.

Sara Everingham: Brazilian Luiz Vieira sees competing in the Tour de Timor as a way to help.

Luiz Vieira: I look at this Tour de Timor not only as a sporting event but also something that can contribute to you know, to the country's development in so many ways. I think it will be a unique event worth joining in.

Sara Everingham: East Timor's President knows his country has a long road ahead.

Jose Ramos Horta: This is still fragile in this country, institutions are fragile. That's why I make a lot of effort to gather the Government in putting the violence once and for all behind us, and hopefully with that in the next two, three years we'll have an increasing number of visitors coming to this country.

Kerry O'Brien, Presenter: Sara Everingham reporting from East Timor.