BAUCAU — Eleven years after achieving independence from Indonesia, Timor-Leste is still one of the youngest countries in the world. And while economic growth rates are good, thanks in part to recent revenue from oil and gas, most people here still live in poverty.
But now, the government is hoping to diversify the fledgling country’s economy by focusing on the tourism industry, banking on the the country’s natural beauty as a perfect draw for holiday and adventure seekers.
Ricardo Ximenes Marques wakes up to paradise every morning at one of the beaches in Baucau, where the 26-year-old works as a waiter at the bar here.
The water nearby is so clear that you don’t even need to dive to see some of the coral and marine life. But only about 27 people visit this untouched paradise every week. And this isn’t helping Marques’ aim for higher education for both him and his siblings.
“My mother and my father, they don’t have much facility to help us, to put us in university,” he says. “That’s why we decided to go another way, how to help each other. I’m the oldest one, so I try as hard and as fast as I can to get what’s needed.”
Marques is part of a community program that employs about 15 people. Started two years ago, the program aims to create sustainable marine industries here, including fisheries, agriculture and marine tourism. The founder of the project is 42-year-old Kevin Austin, a former United Nations security advisor in Timor-Leste. He stayed in the country after the UN forces left at the end of last year.
But it wasn’t exactly an easy start, Austin admits. “There’s was a lot of mistrust here initially, especially with a community that, I guess, was at the heart of the former independence struggle.”
Austin teaches skills to those in the program — everything from cooking to organizing boat tours and other hospitality ventures. He started with $4,500, just enough for a small bar and a barbecue grill.
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Crystal blue waters (Kate Dixon)
Unfortunately, the grill doesn’t get lit as often as it used to. Before leaving the country last year, UN officials and other expats used to drive up from other areas in Timor-Leste to visit the beach. That source of tourism is now gone.
But despite the dismal number of visitors at the moment, Austin sees a silver lining. “People who were here before — the expats — didn’t necessarily spend a lot of money in the country. A lot of it went offshore,” he says. “Whereas tourists, when they come, they do want to actually have an experience and stay within the community, and that’s where they’re spending the money.”
What it will take
Infrastructure is a big challenge here. Driving to the beach areas in Baucau can take hours on long winding roads with potholes, making it a slow and difficult task. The government promises to turn things around by making a priority of infrastructure improvements and marketing the country as a tourist destination. Some 120,000 tourists visited Timor-Leste last year, and the plan is to double that number soon.
Maria Isabel, Timor-Leste’s secretary of state for arts and culture, says the government hopes to position the country as a popular adventure travel spot. “It doesn’t mean we don’t want four- or five-star hotels, but we really want to showcase the nature of the country,” she says. “Otherwise, people can just go to Bali. They have almost everything. They have seven-star hotels, I believe. What you really want to do here is adventure tourism in which people who come can go and talk to the community. And we want people from outside to see our way of living.”
Despite all the obstacles, with high growth rates in recent years and revenues from oil and gas, many believe the government may be able to achieve its goals.
World Bank senior economist Hans Beck says Timor-Leste should be evaluated within the proper context. “The country is just over 10 years old,” he says. “It started from scratch, and research shows that countries take about 15 to 30 years to actually emerge post-conflict and to develop their institutions and their economy. So what Timor has done is quite remarkable.”
But like many Timorese, Marques is hoping the pace of development will pick up. “The government is doing what it has to do,” he says. “Tourism is very special. They must make this the most important point. But honestly, as we know, Timor-Leste is a young country, so we must learn more and more experience from other countries like our neighbors Indonesia and Australia, especially.”
Many people around the world still think that the country is a war zone. Even the U.S. government, for example, warns its citizens to maintain security awareness while in Timor-Leste. So perhaps the biggest challenge for the government here is just to change mindsets.