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East Timor may use its struggle as tourist lure

Reuters - November 1, 2009

Dili, East Timor – East Timor's struggle against Indonesian occupation may soon become a money maker. The government is considering plans to promote major sites of the 25-year fight for independence as part of a tourism campaign.

East Timor, a former Portuguese colony, was invaded in 1975 by Indonesia, but a secessionist movement soon emerged, led by Xanana Gusmao, who is now the country's prime minister, and Josi Ramos-Horta, its president.

Mr. Gusmao spent much of the occupation either in jail or on the run, often hiding with guerrilla fighters in East Timor's mountainous terrain; Mr. Ramos-Horta lived in exile, campaigning for independence.

An estimated 180,000 people died during the occupation, including 1,000 the UN said were killed during a 1999 vote for independence.

But tourists regard East Timor's turbulent past as an attraction, a Japanese tour guide, Noriko Inaba, said as she escorted a Japanese tour group to Dili's Santa Cruz cemetery. More than 200 East Timorese were killed there in 1991, when Indonesian troops fired on mourners, an event known as the Dili massacre.

"It's an historical place because of the tragedy," she said. "This is one of the things we came to see here."

The cemetery's caretaker, Joao da Costa, said tourists often visited the site and took photos. "If more people came from overseas, maybe we could develop faster," he said.

East Timor's tourism minister, Gil da Costa Alves, said the government wanted tourism to contribute more to economic growth in a country that is one of the poorest in Asia and dependent on oil and natural gas revenues for the bulk of state finances.

While there are serious obstacles, including poor infrastructure and a shortage of hotel rooms, he sees an opportunity to promote the historic sites, beaches and wildlife.

"We have this opportunity for historical tourism, for people who are interested in those sites that are part of our history," he said.

"Even the cave where Xanana was in hiding – this is a place we can promote, and other places around the country where our leaders were hiding up in the hills."

About 19,000 people visited East Timor last year, up from about 12,000 in 2006, when tourists stayed away because of political strife. Mr. Alves said he hopes that East Timor can attract as many as 200,000 tourists a year within five years.

However, Loro Horta, an East Timor analyst based at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University, was skeptical.

"The entire country has less than 700 rooms. Right now it's already difficult to get rooms in Dili," said Mr. Horta, who is also the son of the president. "So 200,000 a year – that's something like 700 a day. How exactly are they flying there and where are they going to stay?"

Mr. Horta said more affordable flights to Dili, a bigger airport and a more reliable power supply were also needed before East Timor could compete with Bali in Indonesia as a tourist destination. "I really hope I'm wrong, but we will be lucky if we can get 50,000 a year by 2014," he said.

Mr. Alves said a new infrastructure plan – including a $600 million redevelopment of the airport, the construction of boutique hotels and the improvement of basic infrastructure like roads – would increase tourism.

He said a broader tourism campaign would be aimed at the Australian and Japanese markets and would involve advertising and competitions like a recently opened fishing tournament and the Tour de Timor bicycle race, which took place earlier this year.

Last year, the government opened the Nino Konis Santana National Park in an effort to protect many of its animal and plant species while providing a new attraction for tourists. "Our strategy is to focus on the things that make East Timor different to surrounding destinations," Mr. Alves said.