Paradise lost and found (tourism potential)

Sydney Morning Herald

Paradise lost and found

August 10, 2008

After a false start, East Timor could yet live up to its tourism
potential, writes Danielle Teutsch.

In 2004 I visited East Timor – not as a reconstruction expert, or a
war correspondent or a United Nations envoy, but as a tourist. If
there was one place that had real tourist potential, everyone said,
it was the eastern tip of the country. It was said to be an
undiscovered paradise, with beaches and snorkelling that would rival
any Fijian island.

Like everywhere in East Timor, it wasn’t easy to get to. I was lucky
to have a friend working in the country who organised a ride with
some Australian soldiers on their day off. Even their
four-wheel-drive had trouble navigating the road to Tutuala beach.
From there, a local took us by outrigger canoe to Jaco Island, along
with a handful of expats and UN staff.

The island was indeed your archetypal vision of paradise: blindingly
white sand, aqua blue water and wonderful snorkelling. There was no
tourist infrastructure whatsoever, it was BYO everything, though if
you were lucky locals would catch and grill some fish for you back on
Tutuala beach. We then stayed in the country’s only true “resort”,
Com Beach (again, used only by expats), enjoying a sunset cocktail in
the bar, which we had all to ourselves.

At the time, there was some discussion among expats about the future
of this beautiful area and whether it would fall prey to tourism
developers hungry for the next pristine environment.

But on August 1, worries over that question were laid to rest when
the Government inaugurated the joint terrestrial and marine Nino
Konis Santana National Park, the culmination of six years of hard
work. The park covers 123,600 hectares of land and three nautical
miles out to sea as well, including Jaco Island and Tutuala.

The creation of the national park is good news for the country and
for travellers. The Government has stated that there is scope for
development of ecotourism within the park, while protecting the
traditional communities living there. East Timor has a lot to offer
nature lovers and adventure travellers. It lies within the “Coral
Triangle”, an area with the greatest biodiversity of coral and reef
fish in the world, and Wallacea, an area rich in diverse and unique
flora and fauna.

It’s also timely because East Timor’s fledgling tourism aspirations
need all the boosting they can get. Since East Timor’s violent split
from Indonesia in 1999, the country has been in the headlines for all
the wrong reasons.

It’s true that around the time of my visit in 2004 the country was
beginning to stabilise and a buzz was developing about East Timor’s
potential as a tourism hotspot for the adventurous. Later that year,
Lonely Planet published a guide to the country and founder Tony
Wheeler heralded it as the next big destination for Australians.

Lonely Planet shelved plans for a second East Timor guide this year,
however, following the assassination attempt on President Jose
Ramos-Horta. It’s Wheeler’s impression that tourism has “gone
backwards”. Intrepid Travel, the only Australian operator leading
group tours in the region, stopped going there last year.

But Ann Turner, an adviser to East Timor’s tourism minister Gil
Alves, says East Timor is “not in a rush” to welcome hordes of
people. “It’s better to have tourism take off in the right way at the
right time,” Turner says.

“We’re just in the early days. The Government’s position is to
encourage low-volume, high-end tourism.”

The national park, she says, will be an enormous fillip. “It’s one of
the world’s great treasures, this blend of forest, reef and culture.
We’re hoping ultimately it will be a World Heritage site,” she says.

This kind of sustainable, community-based tourism has, in fact, been
developing slowly in East Timor since 2004. A locally owned tour
company, Eco Discovery, has been set up; a small eco-lodge, run by
the environmental group Haburas Foundation, has opened on Tutuala
beach; and a hotel has opened in Lospalos, close to the bird-watching
haven of Lake Iralalara. An official government tourism website has
also been set up.

Just recently, there have been two important tourism developments –
Austasia Airlines has started direct flights between Singapore and
Dili; and East Timor is now represented on internet hotel booking
site World Hotel Link.

Wheeler, who first travelled through East Timor in the 1970s when it
was on the backpacker route through Asia, believes the country still
has tourist potential, particularly for its excellent diving.

” [The national park] is a good sign, that they are protecting the
environment,” Wheeler says.

“That sort of low-key ecotourism is the right way to go.”

For now, Wheeler remains cautiously optimistic about East Timor’s
future as a tourist destination.

“It’s wait and see,” he says. “Fingers crossed.”
Source: The Sun-Herald

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