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From violent occupation to adventure vacation – can tourism work in Timor?

Timor-Leste’s recent elections were dubbed “the key test for the fragile democracy” by the Australian media. A peaceful outcome of the election meant that United Nations military and police contingent…

Timor boasts some unspoiled coast, but lacks key tourism infrastructure. Denis Tolkach

Timor-Leste’s recent elections were dubbed “the key test for the fragile democracy” by the Australian media. A peaceful outcome of the election meant that United Nations military and police contingent would leave by the end of 2012.

The results allowed current prime-minister Xanana Gusmão and his CNRT party to form coalition government. As a consequence some violence broke out in Dili. Reports say one person died and dozens of cars were burnt. Nevertheless, peace was quickly restored and the national police have the situation under control.

At the same time, the 17 yachts participating in Darwin-Dili Rally were getting close to the shores of Timor-Leste. This event is just one attempt to boost tourism in the country and improve the image of Timor-Leste as a peaceful destination.

Recent elections were a test for Timor. EPA/Antonio Dasiparu

A new industry

Since Timor-Leste gained independence from Indonesian occupation in 1999, tourism has been put forward as one of the major industries that can help the country’s development. Along side petroleum and agriculture, tourism has been considered an economic priority by the government.

Agriculture employs around 64% of population but contributes only 27% to the GDP. Despite this, Timor-Leste remains dependant on food imports including bottled water, rice, chicken, and noodles. La’o Hamutuk, an NGO which monitors and analyses Timor-Leste development, estimates that the Petroleum Fund used to save revenue from Timor Sea oil exploration may become empty as early as in 2018.

Timor-Leste has limited amount of time to convert oil money into other sustainable industries. Given the fact that about 40% of population lives below poverty line, tourist development is paramount as a way to diversify economy, bring employment and rural development.

Currently, tourism in Timor-Leste is at an embryonic stage.

Events such as the Darwin-Dili Yacht Rally, the Dili Marathon and Tour de Timor have generated some positive publicity. The Timorese government also participates in international tourism expos.

The Ministry of Tourism, Commerce and Industry recemt;y employed Caroline Pemberton (Miss Australia 2007), to develop a series of videos promoting Timor-Leste as a tourism destination. Arguably, these efforts are not enough.

Stumbling blocks

One of the challenges for Timor-Leste is the overwhelmingly negative image of security situation portrayed by overseas media. This frustrates government officials and tour operators alike.

Denis Tolkach

Unfortunately, the Timorese have been providing too many opportunities for media to re-assert this, for example the recent post-election violence. Physical infrastructure remains in a bad shape, constraining construction and ability to travel within the country. The reliance on imports and large presence of highly-paid UN and international organisations staff keep the prices up compared to other destinations.

Developing tourism in a small island nation that has been through 24 years of violent occupation is not an easy task.

What does Timor have to offer?

It is extremely difficult to enter the competitive South-East Asian tourist market, unless a country can offer something different.

Timor-Leste is indeed different and looking for its niche. When it comes to tourism outside the capital, Dili, which relies on diplomats and business travellers, Timor is about diving, trekking, colonial and resistance history and cultural experiences.

Timor-Leste is located in a coral triangle, so it offers a high diversity of marine wildlife. The island represents a huge mountain sticking out of the sea with its highest point at Mt Ramelau, which offers amazing hiking.

Denis Tolkach

There are 16 languages spoken from two different language groups, which demonstrates the cultural diversity of Timor-Leste. There are also remainders of Portuguese colonial times and of the resistance against Indonesian occupation.

Time to step up

There are plenty of attractions for developing eco-, adventure and cultural tourism brands. Financial capital, however, is required to develop these tourism products and bring them up to international standards. Considering the state of infrastructure and stiff competition, conventional mass tourism does not appear to be an option. On the contrary, small-scale, niche developments appear more appropriate if environmental and socio-cultural factors are considered.

One has to consider that the majority of the population has not encountered tourism prior to independence, and never had the opportunity to travel for leisure nor to welcome overseas travellers.

Training and education about tourism, tourist needs, demands and desires are vital. While there are institutions that provide hospitality and tourism education, there is a lack of experienced educators. As a consequence, the standards of accommodation, food and service are at times below tourist expectations, despite the genuine hospitality of Timorese people.

Denis Tolkach

The issues of marketing, infrastructure, training and lack of finance prevent successful development of a tourism industry, especially in rural areas of Timor, which are in great need of economic opportunities.

Additionally, political will, overseas and “home-grown” expertise and accessible hospitality and tourism training are required to establish tourism in Timor-Leste.

Considering the rich natural and cultural assets that Timor-Leste has, hopefully its people can overcome the present hurdles and develop tourism industry for the benefit of Timorese people.

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10 Comments sorted by

  1. Mat Hardy

    Lecturer in Middle East Studies at Deakin University

    But of course tourism is a two-edged sword. It brings a lot of bad things with it, depending on what segment of the foreign market you are aiming for. There is plenty of money being turned over in the establishments of Pat Pong and Kuta, but is that desireable for Dili?

    A heavy reliance on tourism revenue also puts you at the whim of fickle markets and as you mention, political troubles. Just ask any Egyptian who has a finger in the tourist business at the moment.

    1. Denis Tolkach

      PhD student in Tourism at Victoria University

      In reply to Mat Hardy

      I think there is no social or commercial point in trying to make Kuta out of Dili. I agree, tourism comes with its problems, but what are the options? For many small island states, there aren't many.

    2. Dale Bloom


      In reply to Mat Hardy

      I would agree with this.

      I have seen huge environmental and social problems due to tourism, and so many tourist resorts eventually go into bankruptcy, after they have created those environmental and social problems.

  2. Terry Mills

    lawyer retired

    I recently returned from a vist to Timor (East and West) and whilst Dili is worth a visit (there are daily flights from darwin) it is really necessary to get away from the coast up to places like Baucau which I understand was a favourite of the Portuguese in colonial days due largely to its mild climate.
    We also took one of the daily commuter mini-bus trips across the Indonesian/Timor Leste border to Kupang in the South West and formerly a Dutch outpost (if you remeber it was Kupang where William…

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    1. Denis Tolkach

      PhD student in Tourism at Victoria University

      In reply to Terry Mills

      It would be great to have more integrated tourism routes between West Timor, East Timor, Maluccas etc. So far this has been problematic, due to visa requirements.

    2. Terry Mills

      lawyer retired

      In reply to Denis Tolkach

      we had no problem with the Indonesian visa which was issued at the border and valid for 60 days but we were surprised that on re-entering Timor Leste a couple of days later we had to pay for another visa ($US75 I think it was) even though we had paid for a Timor Leste visa when arriving in Dili from Darwin the preceding week; their rationale was that any non citizen pays for a visa each time they enter Timor Leste.
      To the best of my knowledge that 60 day Indonesian visa would have allowed us to travel throughout the Indonesian Archipelago.

  3. Colin Trainor


    My comments refer mainly to this section "What does Timor have to offer?".

    You should highlight (and Timor-Leste should) that the island occurs in Wallacea, an incredible biodiversity hotspot, part of the largest archipelago on the planet - the largest island Sulawesi is a "mini-Madagascar" and the second largest of c. 4000 islands is Timor. This region is where Lord Alfred Wallace discovered (with Darwin) the theory of Evolution, 2013 is the 100th anniversary of his death. Of the 600 odd resident…

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  4. Colin Trainor


    I have placed 964 photos taken in Timor-Leste on the Panoramia website, which links in to Googleearth. Most of these are landscapes, birds, other wildlife, some people; especially from Lautem district.

    These have now been viewed more than 100,000 times in total (mostly in past 8 months). A tiny metric to show level of interest in Timor-Leste - though no idea on what proportion are potential tourists and visitors.

    1. Rhonda Palmer


      In reply to Colin Trainor

      Hello Mr Colin Trainor - what a lovely way to promote tourism in TL. I read "Birds of Atauro" by a Mr Trainor (I assume You) before I travelled to TL in 2012 and was thrilled to see a magnificent sea-eagle swoop down over Dili Harbour, catch a fish and fly off in the direction of Atauro as I sat eating lunch at the Castaway.I could hear birds singing all the way from Dili to Baucau but they were very shy and went quite when I stopped the car and I never managed to sight one. With initiatives like yours and with the consent and co-operation of the East Timorese people may tourism develop steadily & appropriately in that beloved country.

  5. Rhonda Palmer


    Enjoyed reading Denis Tolkach's article but I disagree with his judgement of MTCI & ex Miss Australia Caroline Pemberton's efforts to promote tourism in Timor-Leste as "arguably not enough".Personally I think they were way too much(and overpriced at that!) and I still cannot comprehend what Miss Australia has to do with tourism in TL? However travelling solo in TL during the 2012 parl. elections I felt very safe indeed,,the people and the wonderful scenery promote themselves eloquently and are TL's unique ace in the game of tourism.I recommend a reading of "Cultural Tourism Report 2013"through Alola Foundation and Timor Adventures as an intelligent,culturally sensitive way for tourism to progress gently in Beautiful Timor-Leste and I wish it well!