Young Asian Nation Of Timor-Leste Banking On Tourism

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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