Susan Marx – "From its ruggedly beautiful landscapes to its centuries-old traditions, Timor-Leste offers one of the world's last great off-the-beaten-track adventures," begins Lonely Planet's description of Asia's youngest country, which fought to gain independence from Indonesia 14 years ago.
The description is indisputable, but so too are the Southeast Asian country's ambitions, having achieved average economic growth rates of around 10 percent over the last eight years.
Despite its obvious allure, when it comes to tourism and hospitality, Timor-Leste remains isolated, untested, and expensive compared to its ASEAN and Pacific neighbors.
Timor-Leste's new engine of economic growthCoffee is Timor's second-largest export, after oil. In this sector, Timor-Leste has had some success in establishing its image as a high-end, shade-grown producer, with exports mainly to markets in the United States and Europe. Notably, Seattle-based coffee giant Starbucks recently announced it would add a "Mount Ramelau" single origin coffee to its lineup. That being said, coffee exports presently account for only $15.8 million – or approximately 1 percent – of the country's annual budget, and are unlikely to grow to a significant portion of the GDP due to vulnerability to climate shocks which can affect yield consistency.
This conundrum brings us back to rugged landscapes and rich traditions: according to a 2014 Asia Foundation survey of travelers to Timor-Leste, the tourism sector is currently worth $14.6 million per year, and while still a small percentage of overall GDP, it ranks closely behind coffee as the third largest sector. Importantly, though, the survey also indicates high satisfaction among travelers, with 83 percent saying that their experience met their expectations and almost equal proportions saying they would recommend Timor-Leste to their friends and family.
While these figures represent enormous potential, Timor-Leste's tourism sector is dwarfed by that of its geographic neighbors. The Northern Territory in Australia reports an annual visitor economic value add of close to $1.5 billion, and neighboring Indonesia reports a total economic value add of $9.12 billion annually. According to our survey, fewer than 13,000 travelers came to Timor's shores for purely tourism purposes, and only 8 percent saw any form of marketing material relating to Timor-Leste prior to their visit.
However, Timor's government, led by Prime Minister Rui Maria de Araujo, the former health minister who took office last year, is taking action to shift this, regularly highlighting tourism alongside agriculture and fisheries as the focus areas in the non-oil economy. The administration is currently drafting a new tourism policy that acknowledges the tourism sector as one of the country's best bets to generate jobs and investment (currently over 60 percent of youth under 25 are unemployed).
The government has allocated $7.4 million to developing the tourism sector (a still low figure considering the sector poses the second-largest non-oil opportunity). As part of this, the Ministry of Tourism is working on a professional branding and marketing strategy to raise Timor's attractiveness among potential tourists. It is evident that while nascent, the tourism industry will be critical to Timor-Leste's future economic stability. What remains less clear, however, is how.
If you build it, will they come?
Unlike coffee, accurate information about tourism and what drives travelers to visit (or not) was practically non-existent before The Asia Foundation's survey, which provided the first-ever in-depth analysis of visitor experiences upon which the Ministry of Tourism can develop future policies that address the needs of travelers to Timor-Leste.
Our research indicates that unmet traveler needs include poor levels of infrastructure, high costs of rental transport, and limited availability of readily consumable information relating to travel within Timor-Leste. Additionally, while travelers express a desire to visit cultural and historic sites, access to and information about these sites is extremely limited.
When it comes to tourism and hospitality, Timor-Leste remains isolated, untested, and expensive compared to its ASEAN and Pacific neighbors. Coupled with this, its tumultuous past and lagging infrastructure still holds more appeal to the adventurous, backpacker-style traveler than those in search of a family holiday. However, it may just be that its off-the-beaten-track, "unexplored" character is in fact its greatest appeal.
It is true that most infrastructure in the country is in need of an upgrade, and the availability of quality services rapidly diminishes as one travels farther from the capital, even by the standards of the most adventurous of tourists. This reality is captured perfectly by one of the most common phrases heard by tourists in restaurants and hotels: la iha (we don't have that). But, in all fairness, today, 14 years after independence, Timor-Leste is a far cry from the warring images that captured the world's attention on the front pages of many international news outlets in the 1990s. Now, Timor-Leste is by all measures a thriving, democratic, and vibrant young country in which tourists (at least in Dili) can readily enjoy many creature comforts, and power is nearly always available.
Timor-Leste is at an important juncture for its future as a nation, and as a tourist destination, and determining the most appropriate approach can be daunting. One popular option is the "build it and they will come" approach favored by a few well-positioned investors, versus the demand-focused route favored by risk-averse, capital-poor operators heavily reliant on government infrastructure and most tourism experts. The nature of interdependency between these operators and government for investments like major infrastructure, relevant access to capital, national brand management, and other inputs does point to the importance of a joint government-private sector approach.
Whatever the type of tourism the government ultimately settles on, the decisions made today will not only impact the country's economic viability, but also its social fabric, international relations, and future livelihood of its people – 75 percent of whom live in rural areas and 50 percent of whom live below the poverty line. For these reasons, it is crucial for government agencies and ministries involved to come together around a holistic and coordinated tourism policy that is based on hard evidence, not just anecdotes and aspirations.
A successful policy process should bring together stakeholders from within government, development partners, civil society, communities, and the private sector to identify opportunities in the short, medium, and long term, harnessing and bolstering the emerging tourism industry while at the same time taking care not to displace and upend important gains that have been made to date. Such a policy should take a strong pro-Timorese and pro-poor approach by considering inclusiveness and the impact on local markets and industries, both negative and positive, in addition to national-level economic impacts.
By setting the stage for an authentic experience to a diverse and vibrant country with a compelling story, Timor-Leste has an opportunity to become a new niche destination for resort-wary, high-income Australian and Asian markets in search of the "next new thing." Also, learning from similar experiences in countries such as Vietnam and Korea, both former war-torn nations with booming tourism industries today, rather than focusing on an aspirational model of mass-tourism, Timor-Leste can find its voice, and its place in the booming tourism market in the region and the world.
The Asia Foundation is currently working with the Ministry of Tourism, NGOs, and the private sector to support the development of its tourism strategy and national branding campaign, which will include a website with accurate, easily accessible, and up-to-date information on destinations across the country. Download the full 2014 Survey of Travelers to Timor-Leste.
[Susan Marx is The Asia Foundation's country representative in Timor-Leste. She tweets at @TAFRepTimor. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.]