Dili – The interfaith organization for religious tourism in Timor-Leste has urged the government to draw up special rules to preserve sacred places that will become religious tourism sites.
Father Angelo Salshina, chairman of the Timor-Leste Religious Tourism Association (ATR-TL), said such regulations are essential to ensure that such places are well-maintained to serve the tourism industry that is being developed.
He said there are no binding regulations for religious tourism sites, for example regarding what is allowed and what is prohibited at them, as well as the responsibility for their maintenance.
"The absence of these regulations leaves them neglected. Nowadays we can easily find a lot of trash at such places. People don't pay attention to the issue," he said.
He pointed out that the Cristo Rei statue and the St. John Paul II Park, which was established to commemorate the visit of the pope in 1989, are popular places for people to exercise.
"They are holy places, which should be focused on spiritual activities only. When they are used for other activities, then this reduces the value of the attraction," he said, adding that the ATR-TL was ready to assist the government in drafting such regulations.
"Incidentally we were drawing up a master plan for religious tourism sites and are currently in the process of finalizing it," he said.
Jelino Soares, general director of tourism at the Ministry of Tourism, Trade and Industry, said the government would consider the proposal.
He said the government did make tourism one of the main programs of national development, but there were still many things that had not been done.
Soares said they might accommodate the proposal in a draft regulation on community-based tourism, a strategy involving local communities, which is currently being discussed with the relevant ministries.
Timor-Leste is seeking to diversify its economy to break its dependence on petroleum, which accounts for about 70 percent of GDP and more than 80 percent of the country's annual income.
Tourism has become one of the main targets, with the government launching a special program for its development in 2017. It is estimated that by 2030 revenue from tourism will reach US$150 million and employment in the sector will reach 15,000. This will be underpinned by 200,000 international visitors per year by 2030, compared to 55,000 in 2014.
One of the focuses to achieve that target is to maximize the potential for religious tourism.
Father Salshina said the target would be possible to achieve through planned and measurable programs.
He said they had so far identified the religious tourism potential of each religion in five municipalities in the Catholic-majority country, including their development and promotion strategies.
The ATR-TL was launched in 2021 and receives financial support from the government as well as other institutions such as USAID, the international development agency, to support its programs.