East Timor lures tourists with historic independence sites

East Timor’s struggle against Indonesian occupation may soon become a tidy earner, with the government considering plans to promote key sites of the 25-year fight for independence as part of a tourism campaign.

A former Portuguese colony, East Timor was invaded in 1975 by Indonesia, but a secessionist movement soon emerged, led by Xanana Gusmao, who is now the country’s Prime Minister, and Jose Ramos-Horta, its President.

Gusmao spent much of occupation either in jail or on the run, often hiding with guerrilla fighters in East Timor’s mountainous terrain, while Ramos-Horta lived in exile, campaigning for independence.

An estimated 180 000 people died during the occupation, including 1 000 the United Nations says were killed during the bloody 1999 vote for independence.

But tourists regard East Timor’s turbulent past as a drawcard, said Japanese tour guide Noriko Inaba as she escorted a Japanese tour group to Dili’s Santa Cruz cemetery — where more than 200 East Timorese were killed in 1991 when Indonesian troops fired on mourners, an event known as the Dili Massacre.

”It’s an historical place because of the tragedy,” she said. ”This is one of the things we came to see here.”

The cemetery’s caretaker, Joao da Costa, said tourists often visit the site and take photos.

”If more people came from overseas, maybe we could develop faster,” he said.

East Timor’s Tourism Minister, Gil da Costa Alves, said the government wants tourism to contribute more towards economic growth in a country that’s one of the poorest in Asia and dependent on oil and gas revenues for the bulk of state finances.

While there are serious obstacles, including poor infrastructure and a shortage of hotel rooms, he sees scope to promote the historic sites, beaches and wildlife.

”We have this opportunity for historical tourism, for people who are interested in those sites that are part of our history,” he said.

”Even the cave where Xanana was in hiding, this is a place we can promote and other places around the country where our leaders were hiding up in the hills.”

About 19 000 people visited East Timor last year, up from about 12 000 in 2006, when tourists stayed away because of political strife. Now that the situation was more stable, Alves said he hoped that in five years’ time East Timor could attract as many as 200 000 tourists a year.

However, Loro Horta, an East Timor analyst based at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, was sceptical.

”The entire country has less than 700 [hotel] rooms. Right now it’s already difficult to get rooms in Dili,” said Horta, who is also the son of the president.

”So 200 000 a year, that’s something like 700 a day. How exactly are they flying there and where are they going to stay?”

Horta said more affordable flights to Dili, a bigger airport and more reliable power supply were also needed before East Timor could compete with Indonesia’s Bali island as a tourist destination.

”I really hope I’m wrong but we will be lucky if we can get 50 000 a year by 2014,” he said.

Alves said new a infrastructure plan — including a $600-million airport redevelopment, construction of new boutique hotels, and the improvement of basic infrastructure such as roads — would boost tourism in future.

He said a broader tourism campaign would be aimed at the Australian and Japanese markets and would involve advertising and competitions such as a recently launched fishing tournament and the Tour de Timor bicycle race that took place earlier this year.

Today, conditions in dusty downtown Dili are still very basic and poverty is rife, but the underdevelopment means that many beaches, diving spots and bushland tracts are relatively pristine.

Last year, the government opened the Nino Konis Santana national park in an effort to protect many of its animal and plant species while providing a new attraction for tourists.

”Our strategy is to focus on the things that make East Timor different to surrounding destinations,” said Alves. — Reuters

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