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Timor-Leste island community fears large-scale tourism development on Atauro

ABC Radio Australia - July 17, 2017

Felicity James – Tourism businesses from an island off the coast of Timor-Leste's capital say they fear large-scale government projects could destroy their community and local voices are being ignored in the debate.

In Timor-Leste, there has been a push for the Government to develop the tourism sector as the country tries to end its reliance on oil and gas revenue.

Documents obtained by the ABC show plans drawn up for a government authority in 2015, depicting a transportation hub, more than a dozen jetties, an airport and 11 helipads on the tiny island of Atauro, near Dili.

The documents appear to have been produced for the authority known as ZEESM, which oversees two regions designated as special economic zones in Timor-Leste – the enclave of Oecusse and Atauro.

Timor-Leste's Acting Tourism Minister Maria Isabel J Ximenes said she had not heard about the plans and that eco-tourism would be the "obvious approach" for the island.

"I'm not aware of any plan of having many helipads, I don't think so," she said. "You can go around Atauro by boat and it's very easy because all the villages – the population – live along the beaches."

Marselina de Araujo Balamba, the president of Atauro's tourism association, said local organisations and community members had not been consulted about the Government's or ZEESM's plans for the island.

"We still want development but only the small one, we don't want the big one – we don't want a casino, we don't want big hotels, we don't want a big helipad," she said.

"They have to come to this island and then listen to the people – listen to the island and see what has been done here."

Atauro could be 'eco-tourism model' for Timor-Leste

Ms de Arujo Balamba said Atauro could be an eco-tourism model for the rest of the country, with its biodiverse coral reefs, mountains and beaches. "Our dream is one day maybe this place is going to be a national park, to have a lot of people coming to this place," she said.

"We heard that they are going to make a very big port here for the transportation and everything, but we don't really need one. A big port for who? Who's going to use it? Who's going to come?"

She said her group had been asking the Government to fix electricity, water supplies and rubbish disposal on the island for more than five years.

Atauro resident Alfonso Soares and his wife have just opened their home to tourists as part of a homestay project. "In addition to seeing our riches in the ocean, they also come to learn our culture," he said.

Mr Soares said he and others on the island were worried about the future for local jobs. "If tourists come to a big hotel, the community here, we won't get an opportunity," he said. "No one will stay at our small homestay."

The Boneca de Atauro cooperative is a major source of income for women on the island, with almost 60 women employed. The profits from the dolls they make go directly to the community.

The ABC understands the organisation has fears about its land tenure because the property it operates from is on government land.

Tourism strategy a 'work in progress'

Civil society groups, including the Asia Foundation, have been working closely with Timor-Leste's Government to draft a new tourism policy.

The foundation's Timor-Leste country representative, Todd Wassel, said the Government was aiming to increase tourist numbers from about 50,000 a year to 200,000 a year by 2030.

"Tourism is just one of those pieces that has to work if Timor wants to become an integrated, diverse economy," Mr Wassel said.

"Timor needs to be careful about destroying its main product – that's its natural beauty – so environmental regulations and standards are necessary. There also needs to be a concerted effort to makes sure that tourism revenue actually flows back to the community."

The national tourism policy was finalised in March, but according to Ms Ximenes and the ZEESM president, Fretlin's Mari Alkatiri, the country's tourism strategy is still a work in progress.

Ms Ximenes said the Government was working closely with ZEESM and the community would be consulted about any plans.

"We have to understand, this is a new country. This is a very, very, very young country," Ms Ximenes said. "We have to start from small, small scale, and we can see what we can do in the future."

Mari Alkatiri said all policies, including tourism, would need further work after Timor-Leste citizens elect a new parliament on July 22. "We need first of all to develop community tourism, link it to the community, link it to agriculture, link it to development of the rural areas."

Researcher Charlie Scheiner from local organisation La'o Hamutuk, which analyses the country's economy and government policy, said the agriculture sector should be prioritised.

"We think the primary focus for economic development should be agriculture," Mr Scheiner said. "About two thirds of Timorese are farmers and they can provide food, which allows people to eat, allows people to live. You can't eat a tourist."

Source: http://www.radioaustralia.net.au/international/2017-07-17/timorleste-island-community-fears-largescale-tourism-development-on-atauro/1686378