Tourists discover East Timor's charms

For now the idea of adventure - with a spot of world-class diving - is the lure for tourists trickling into the world's youngest nation.

    About 3,000 tourists visited East Timor last year

    But guerrilla tours cashing in on  East Timor's strife-torn history have begun too and whale-spotting could  be a drawcard one day.

    Official statistics are not yet kept in the nation that was occupied by Indonesia for 24 years and turns four next month, but industry insiders estimate about 3,000 tourists arrived in East Timor last year.

    It's hardly a crowd but a dramatic improvement on earlier years, says Eduardo Massa, director of East Timor's first travel agency Timor MegaTours.

    "It was totally different," he says of 2005. "At last we started to have groups, small groups coming, and we had several cruises  coming as well ... Suddenly everybody looked at East Timor and felt  confident to come here."

    Before that, the memory of the violence stoked by  Indonesian-backed militias in 1999 was still too fresh, he said.

    Enraged by the overwhelming vote for independence from Indonesia in a UN-backed referendum, the mobs murdered an estimated 1,400  people and obliterated some 70% all buildings in the half-island nation.

    But now, Massa boasts, "Timor is safe as any other place in the world."

    Poor roads

    Still, the lack of infrastructure - poor roads, limited places  to stay and minimal services - means only a certain type of  adventure tourist is coming for now to enjoy the stunning scenery of Asia's poorest nation.

    "We had a group of Japanese whose average age was 60, but still they slept in tents and were happy to do that - but of course, they were looking for adventure, they were not looking for a five-star hotel," Massa says.

    "Of course people complain about the roads, but this is the best  for adventure. You need a four-wheel drive, it's so fantastic."

    What does the former Portuguese colony have to offer?

    "Because of the coffee and all of those mountains, it's really  fantastic for trekking," Massa enthuses, referring to East Timor's extensive shaded coffee plantations, which were mostly started under  the orders of the Portuguese.

    In particular, Massa's company is about to start running treks led by about 20 former resistance fighters.

    "They know this country. They know the hideouts ... . When they  talk to you about the places you are passing by, it's so different  from if I am talking," he explains.

    No landmines

    And unlike in many other post-conflict nations, landmines are not hindering exploration of the hills for undiscovered tourist  spots.

    Simon Jeffery, 36, who has worked for Dive Timor Lorosae for  three years leading guided dives and captaining their boat, waxes  lyrical about the potential for diving in the young nation.

    "Big tour organisers come out here and love the place - it's  world-class diving," he says, comparing it to Bali and Australia's Great Barrier Reef.

    "The exciting thing about it is that it's all virgin territory  - there are virtually 1,000 - or 10,000 - dive sites out there that have never been dived before," he enthuses.

    "At traditional dive destinations like Thailand and Fiji now there'll be 200 people at a site and you can't see the fish."


    Another potential he sees is whale-spotting.

    "There's been a time when we've had pilot whales and dolphins, thousands and thousands of them," he says, gesturing out to the azure waters lapping Dili's beaches from the restaurant he also runs.

    Arcanjo da Silva, vice minister of development, says tourism is a priority for the government in helping to boost East Timor's  economy.

    East Timor is as safe now as any
    other country but impoverished

    "For the Timorese, we cannot only trust in gas and oil, or only  trust in agriculture to develop our economy," he says, referring to East Timor's main foreign exchange earners.

    "We have to look at other potential sectors and one of them is tourism."

    The main challenge for now is a dire lack of human resources and attracting foreign investment to help build up infrastructure.

    Meanwhile in the next few weeks, a ferry from the German  government aimed at tourists is due to arrive to ply the route  between Dili and nearby Atauro island - slated as a potential  eco-tourism destination - and the Oecussi-Ambeno enclave, according to the vice minister.

    Starting point

    Da Silva says: "We have to prepare infrastructure: roads, hotels, restaurants, among other things, for tourists to come ... . We are now at the starting point of the development of tourism in Timor."

    Another hindrance is a lack of direct flights to Dili. Travellers must currently travel through Australia's Darwin or the Indonesian resort island of Bali to get here.

    Jose Ramos-Horta, the Timorese foreign minister, old AFP in an interview that the government has been in contact with Air Asia and Silk Air about opening direct links to either Malaysia or Singapore.

    "Right now the Bali route or particularly the Darwin route is a  killer," he concedes.



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