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Timor Leste's tourism industry still in early stages

Channel News Asia - October 9, 2013

Bacau – To diversify its economy, Timor Leste has identified tourism and agriculture as two key industries.

Tourism was chosen because the country is blessed with natural beauty and it is a fast way to get the people employed. The few people who have been diving in Timor Leste call their experience one of a kind.

Kevin Austin, CEO of Sustainable Marine Industry Development Facility, said: "Just four days ago, we had three adult blue whales coming through the lagoon. We haven't seen that in the world, this close to the shore. It's unusual around the world now. Around 95-97 per cent of the time, we see green turtles, sharks, reef sharks, and occasionally manta rays."

The tiny nation sits at the heart of the Coral Triangle – an area so rich in marine life that it has been called the Amazon of the Seas.

But divers, or tourists in general, are few and far between. The ones who find their way there are doing it for special reasons.

Tourist Cath Cock said: "I heard of the Santa Cruz massacre in the 90s. As an Australian, for these things to happen in our nearest neighbour, in Timor Leste, I felt some responsibility."

Timor's turbulent past does not have much mass market appeal. The tourism industry brought in just US$21 million in 2011, practically unchanged from five years ago.

Security problems are a big concern. Until a few months ago, the UK was still warning its travellers about the danger of getting caught up in fights among gangs of youths.

Australia still urges its citizens to exercise a high degree of caution when they are here. Perceptions are hard to change and Timorese officials seem at loss about what to do.

Maria Isabel de Jesus Ximenes, secretary of state for arts and culture, said: "If the country's not safe, it will be in the news that we are fighting each other, but there's nothing in the news."

In a country where half the youths are unemployed, getting tourism right is crucial to creating jobs, and ensuring long term stability. Austin, a former United Nations security advisor, decided to stay after the UN peace keeping mission ended last year.

He said: "I guess it's unfinished business. In our time here, I felt we didn't do enough to generate employment in the industry. You can see there's so much potential for things like tourism to benefit the community directly. "

Now he runs Baucau Beaches, a community-based tourism project. With five tents, two boats and a restaurant, it employs 13 locals. Austin is happy with what he has to work with.

He said Timor is not trying to become another Bali – adorned with flashy night spots and five-star resorts. He said what is more important is to preserve the country's pristine beauty and make sure the people of the land are the ones to benefit. (CNA/xq)