Subject: BP: Timor Leste tries to woo more tourists

Bangkok Post BUSINESS NEWS - Monday 06 October 2003

Travel Monitor

Timor Leste tries to woo more tourists

President of world's youngest country makes pitch to regional travel mart

IMTIAZ MUQBIL - Singapore

The President of the world's youngest country last week became the first head of state to inaugurate the annual travel mart of the Pacific Asia Travel Association (Pata) where he made a strong pitch for both visitors and investors to help him with nation building.

President Xanana Gusmao of Timor Leste (East Timor) told the Asia-Pacific travel industry that his country faced a serious employment problem and needed to create jobs.

Oil and gas are the country's primary sources of income at the moment but it needs to diversify by developing tourism and other industries like fisheries, coffee and agriculture.

Having attained independence in May 2002, and now seeking observer status in Asean, Timor Leste has also become a member of Pata and was given a place at the association's travel mart in Singapore last week. Buyers queued up to find out more about tourism-related infrastructure, facilities and services in the infant nation.

With a population of less than a million, the country is rich in dive sites and rainforests populated with indigenous tribes. Most of the current visitors are businessmen interested in exploiting the oil and gas resources.

Talks are under way with Merpati, the Indonesian carrier, about setting up an airline. Merpati flies a daily Boeing 737 from Bali to the capital of Dili and the Australian operator Airnorth has a twice-daily service from Darwin, Australia. These are the only two international air-access points.

Visas are available to anyone upon arrival for 30 days on payment of US$25, extendable for 90 days.

Tourism promotion to Timor Leste would help Thailand's Central Group of Hotels which for the last three years has had a floating hotel berthed at Dili port, a five minute walk from the capital's Government House.

A converted cruise ship that was moved to Dili from Burma, the 133-room Central Maritime Hotel (owned by Thailand's Central Resorts and Hotels) has two meeting rooms, a business centre, saunas and a sun deck with a swimming pool. Central's director of international sales, Jurairat Mongkolwongsiri, said business had fallen off in recent years following the pullout of the UN teams.

Apart from the Central, Dili has only three other hotels of any reasonable standard, although three more are said to be under construction. Rack rates are about $120 a night but the decline in business has seen actual rates fall to as low as $45. A large number of guesthouses and lodges have rates ranging from $25-30.

President Gusmao was welcomed at the Mart by Pata President Peter de Jong, who made the greeting in fluent Portuguese. The Timor Leste president was accompanied by a tourism delegation, including an adviser from the Portuguese Ministry of Tourism and a representative from the private sector.

In both his main speech and in an exclusive interview with a small group of travel journalists, the president made clear that he did not want Timor Leste to become an oil-dependent nation but neither did he want to see the tourism industry going the same way as other countries in the region.

In developing our tourism, we will respect the social and environmental integrity of the country. In managing our tourism, we will try to find the delicate balance between the required economical growth and sustainability along with community participation, he said.

He acknowledged concerns about crime-related security and safety in his country but said that was because young people did not have jobs.

He told the buyers that they could help build better security in his country because without employment and without any other assistance like training programmes, the country would be a secure place.

Timor Leste's tourism development is also being helped by the World Tourism Organisation and Unesco which is studying the country's heritage sites. A secretary of state for tourism has been appointed and earlier this year, a major conference was held to generate ideas on ways to boost tourism.

Ann Turner, vice-president of the private-sector Tourism Association of East Timor, who set up a diving operation in the country three years ago, said local expatriates were generating more business for her than foreign visitors. However, she expressed hope that her presence at the Pata mart would change this ratio and help her achieve profitability by next year.

She said foreigners were allowed to hold 100% shares in local companies but were not yet getting any tax holidays or other investment privileges.

Ms Turner said the Portuguese could look into a potential aviation link with their other former Asian colony, Macau, which would develop as a feeder out of Hong Kong.

She said there had been considerable interest in Timor Leste shown by European buyers at the Pata mart where the country's colourful booth was designed and funded by the Macau tourism authority.

Costs are a problem. President Gusmao himself admitted that two days in Dili could potentially cost the visitor the equivalent of two weeks in Bali.

- Imtiaz Muqbil is executive editor of Travel Impact Newswire, an e-mailed feature and analysis service focusing on the Asia-Pacific travel industry.


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