The Conundrum of Timor-Leste – Few tourists but tourism is key to development

15 January 2016

“The Tale of the Timorese Coffee Farmer” – Timor-Leste’s booth at the 2015 Milan Expo – showcases one of the region’s main exports. This exhibition marks the country’s biggest international promotion event to date, representing a significant moment for the country’s ascension onto the world scene. Members of the Timorese government have visited Milan, and a permanent delegation has been established to help promote a country that remains, for the most part, completely unknown around the world.

The exhibit conveys much about what Timor-Leste hopes to achieve in terms of its development – tourism included – and about the challenges it faces in doing so, all against the backdrop of the country’s coffee production. The Timorese coffee farmer who has “experienced not only the effects of colonisation, war and political upheaval” but also “has [had] to compete internationally with other much larger and established coffee producing nations globally through means of producing organic, premium coffee” has met these challenges by maintaining organic farming in order to promote sustainable development and environmentally friendly practices. This sort of streamlined solution has yet to be achieved in the context of tourism.

In tourism, as in coffee, Timor-Leste must bear the burden of its past – for example, lack of infrastructure and adequately trained human resources – and it faces stiff competition from other established and emerging markets. There are many popular tourism destinations nearby, notably in the vast Indonesian archipelago, where infrastructure is better, prices more accessible, and the tourism sector better prepared.

One of the least visited countries in the world (it is difficult to come up with real tourism statistics as most tourism visas are obtained by people who actually work temporarily there), Timor-Leste welcomes perhaps only a few thousand tourists a year. Encountering visitors travelling the country is still quite a novelty, despite the growing number of programmes, tours, options, and destinations. Many simply fly into Dili on prepaid and pre-booked tours to go diving, returning to the airport immediately. Others are “political tourists” visiting the revolutionary sites and stomping grounds of political change in the newest nation of the 21st century, partaking in the history of a nation that was, in 1999, the focus of global media attention.

A study published in early 2015 by the Asia Foundation based on a survey of 700 visitors concludes that the country’s tourism sector is promising. Based on inbound arrivals, it estimates that the industry is currently worth US$ 14.6 million per annum, placing it close behind coffee, which remains Timor-Leste’s primary export in the non-oil economy at US$ 15 million per annum. “The study also indicates high satisfaction with 83 [percent] of travellers believing their experience met their expectations with almost equal proportions saying they would recommend Timor-Leste to their friends and family,” the study notes.

This satisfaction is not reflected in the numbers, however. Compared to other nations in the region, for example, a recent ANZ analysis confirms that in the case of Timor-Leste, the contribution of tourism to its GDP is “n/a”, while it represents 13 percent in the Solomon Islands and 40 percent in Fiji. While it is difficult to compete with the huge oil and gas industry (which almost entirely funds the country), tourism should and could have a greater impact.

To be sure, Timor-Leste is not currently a major destination on the tourism map, as a recent newspaper article would indicate: “Timor-Leste: what it’s like to travel in a land without tourists.” But there have been advancements in the past few years that could turn the tide: there are now regular diving tours, both on the main island as well as on the island of Atauro, and “political tourism” continues to attract people from all over the world. Personal recommendations – often by people who live or have lived in the country – also account for a percentage.

Overall, the tourism industry has grown significantly: flights to and from the country have increased with availability from Darwin, Bali, and Singapore; there are more boats for hire; accommodation has increased; and the shopping and restaurant industries have expanded. This rapid growth is significant for a country that almost burned to the ground only 16 years ago and has since had to weather a significant civil conflict in 2006.

The capital, Dili, is a prime example of Timor-Leste’s ability to meet the needs of global events. It hosted the 10th Summit of Heads of State and Government of the Community of Portuguese Speaking Countries in 2014, and accommodated in June of this year (despite the scepticism of many Timorese and foreigners living in Dili), a one-day unprecedented influx of hundreds of tourists from the Pacific Jewel Ship, the first ever cruise ship to dock in Timor-Leste. The city’s infrastructure responded well, tours were organised both in Dili and outside the capital, and tourists reported positive experiences overall. But this may not be enough for tourism development to truly thrive.

In a highly competitive global tourism market, in a region where tourism is king and visitors already have an unending range of options – from luxury to off-the-beaten-track – Timor-Leste barely registers, and changing that will require significant investment not just in marketing and brand development. Perhaps more important to determine is what ilk of tourism, exactly, Timor-Leste wants to offer and how to go about laying the groundwork for the development that would accomplish such a goal.

The majority of visitors to the country, for example, note that they relied on word-of-mouth recommendations to inform their itinerary ahead of their trip, as there was little or no information available online or in other traditional media sources. Nor was this void filled when they entered the country. For example, hotels offer little or no promotional materials at all for guests.

Currently, the government’s strategy centres on five pillars: ecological and maritime tourism, historic and cultural tourism, sport and adventure tourism, religious tourism, and tourism partnered with conferences and conventions. Areas, which require shared improvements, such as basic infrastructure, but target completely different audiences and markets therefore require completely different public and private projects, which will prove both costly and inefficient. The strategy planning documents also acknowledge difficulties in a crucial element of any tourism development: human resources. Timor-Leste lacks trained staff particularly in the service industry where better language skills are required and specific technical expertise necessary.

Of course, one of the biggest challenges is the lack of infrastructure. Despite the improvements made in the 13 years since independence, much remains to be done, most notably in areas such as roads, water, sanitation, and other basic commodities, which any large-scale tourism strategy requires. Such large-scale promised investments remain on paper, and actual improvements, for example, in roads, have been slow and difficult.

On the consumer side, just getting to the country is expensive (from Singapore it can cost upwards of US$ 500 and from Darwin even more so); travelling in the country is equally expensive (a 4WD car can cost up to US$ 100 per day); and the accommodation available generally offers little value for money spent, despite recent developments and new spaces. Comparatively, the tourism dollar does not stretch far in Timor-Leste. The Asia Foundation survey, for example, notes that a visit to Timor-Leste (flights excluded) would cost around US$ 638, suggesting that “the annual economic value-add by travellers who have participated in leisure travel during their visit to Timor-Leste is approximately US$ 14.6 million”.

For the government, tourism is – alongside agriculture and oil and gas – one of the pillars for the country’s future economic development. After all, Timor-Leste has “considerable advantages” in these industries due to the country’s “natural resources, geography, and economic profile.” Yet, the government recognises that consolidating this objective is a mid-term endeavour, expecting that it may not be until 2030 that Timor-Leste will “have a well-developed tourism industry, attracting a large number of international visitors, contributing substantially to the creation of community benefits, locally and nationally, and creating jobs in the country”. The Strategic Development Plan (2011-2030), which serves as a guide for government and state strategy across all areas, considers the “natural beauty, rich history, and cultural patrimony” of Timor-Leste of containing “great potential for the development of tourism as an important industry for economic development”.

Effectively utilising this potential towards the end goal, however, has proven more complicated and less realistic: of the objectives for 2015, only one has been achieved – the Archive and Museum of the Timorese Resistance. The five Regional Cultural Centres have not been opened; the National Archive and Library remain, largely, a theoretical project; the project of building outdoor cinemas around the country has yet to take off; and the National Creative Arts Academy still does not exist at all.

This, unfortunately, points to a sluggish development of the tourism industry. But this cloud may contain a silver lining: for now, visitors to Timor-Leste may have the unique experience of travelling around a country unadulterated with the consequences of tourism. A country in its raw, genuine form. Enjoy it while you can. (Macao Magazine, by Maya Leonor in Dili)

MACAUHUB FRENCH