Subject: ST in East Timor: Tourism Offers Fresh Hope For A Healing Nation

The Straits Times (Singapore)

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Fresh Hope For A Healing Nation

Jayandra Menon

Tourism is just one of the many areas Timor Leste is tapping as it seeks further growth

In Dili (Timor Leste) - Timor Leste is dropping the tagline 'the world's newest nation' in favour of 'the world's newest destination'.

And Singaporean hotelier Edward Ong Han Nam is banking hundreds of millions on it living up to the new label.

Despite the global economic crisis, he is going ahead with building Timor Leste's first five-star resort - a massive project that will include a 350-room hotel, a business park and a 27-hole golf complex.

Thus, a journey of fits and starts for Timor Leste appears poised to start again.

The tiny state is celebrating its 10th year as an independent country with renewed hope of progress for its long-suffering people.

This is a rugged country, largely mountainous and with many inaccessible areas. The view from the air on the approach into Dili, the capital, is majestic. Lush foliage covers tall mountains set against a backdrop of turquoise water.

The landing is equally breathtaking. The Airbus-319 hits the runway, screeches as the pilot brakes hard. Its nose stops just short of the end of the strip.

Welcome to the President Nicolau Lobato International Airport.

The terminal is small and spartan. A burly European-looking United Nations Police (UNPOL) officer is an immediate sign of the ubiquitous presence of the world body in this fledgling nation - a decade after it helped guide Timor Leste, then known as East Timor, to independence.

We land just as the sun goes down. The first order of business is payment of a US$30 (S$45) entry tax to a Timorese officer sitting in a dark room.

The flight from Singapore was delayed and airport officials went the extra mile to ensure a safe landing, since no planes land here in the dark at the moment.

It is my first visit, courtesy of Australia-based Austasia Airlines which, through a charter arrangement with SilkAir, began a twice-weekly service from Singapore to Dili in October last year.

My first impression is that its people are filled with hope.

The many foreigners who live and work here, mostly with the United Nations, however are guarded in their optimism.

During the drive from the airport to the city, less than half an hour away, it is easy to see why.

The gutted shells of what were once houses or buildings, many plastered with graffiti, continue to dot the scenery. They are a reminder of just how fragile nationhood is.

The Timorese are striving to overcome centuries of living under occupation; first for nearly five centuries under the Portuguese and then for more than two decades of Indonesian rule.

Timor Leste achieved full independence from Indonesia in 2002, about three years after the people voted for it in a UN referendum.

But the path has been treacherous ever since. There was an outbreak of violence almost immediately after the vote and then again in 2006.

An abortive attempt by a rebel leader to assassinate the president and the prime minister last year again set tongues wagging about the country's future.

But officials here are confident that the country has turned the corner, now that their people yearn for stability and prosperity.

Newly found riches of gas and oil in their own backyard in the Timor Sea hold promise that could indeed happen.

Royalties - to the tune of about US$100 million a month - from oil and gas have left the country flush with cash. A Petroleum Fund, akin to a sovereign wealth fund, now stands at US$5 billion, not a minuscule amount for a country of about a million people.

In the face of grim economic news everywhere in the world, Timor Leste appears blessed and immune from the global recession.

Debate appears centred instead on how much, and how quickly, to move ahead with development while improving peace and security in a nation which its President Jose Ramos Horta - the internationally recognisable Nobel Peace Prize winner - readily admits is 'starting from scratch'.

In an exclusive interview with The Sunday Times, he says: 'We have to deal with issues of poverty, employment, youth alienation, loss of hope and then, in parallel, organise your law and order institutions like the police and army.

'All these factors must be addressed, without which there cannot be peace.'

During the interview in his private residence on Robert F. Kennedy Boulevard - one of few road names discernible in the capital - the President is not only candid about the challenges ahead for Timor Leste but also certain about the need to act soon.

He speaks about tapping into the Petroleum Fund for investment in 'critical areas of the economy', including the building of roads, upgrading of the airport and port to international standards and improving education and health care, as well as in rural development.

Perhaps, more importantly, he says the country has to move to diversify its economy.

Tourism is one obvious money-spinner for a country, which among other things, touts the best dive spots in the world and pristine beaches as its attractions.

That was certainly a lure for Mr Ong. 'It's a virgin place that people have not explored yet,' he says.

Mr Ong, 61, and a devout Christian, has been a hotelier for 15 years. He developed the Sutera Harbour resort, regarded as a choice accommodation spot for golfers and tourists in Sabah.

Before going into the hotel line, he was in his family's construction business, working for Ock Construction in Singapore.

Located in Tasi Tolu, Mr Ong's latest venture is about a half hour's drive from Dili.

Work on the 118ha site, which overlooks the beach, will begin by September and is expected to be completed by 2012. The as-yet-unnamed Tasi Tolu resort will be modelled on Sutera Harbour.

At US$350 million, Mr Ong's is the single biggest foreign investment outside of the gas and oil sector in Timor Leste since it gained independence.

But, surely, if the tourists are to come to resorts such as the one he is building, the nation's dilapidated infrastructure has to be built up.

President Ramos Horta and Deputy Prime Minister Jose Luis Guterres have indicated that they are looking at Singapore for expertise in building up the port and airport.

Tackling corruption is another area where they hope to learn from Singapore's experience.

So things are looking up for Timor Leste, a point emphasised by the UN Special Representative for Timor Leste, Mr Atul Khare, during a meeting of the country's development partners in Dili in the previous week.

He noted that 2008 was a good year for the country, with the re-establishment of peace and security as well as the reintegration of internally displaced people. He was referring to those who fled their homes in the violence in 2006.

Mr Khare, echoing the view of Timorese officials here, says the challenge now is to ensure the long-term sustainability of the progress.

It is also time to move on from 'post-conflict recovery and emergency stabilisation to a development agenda', he says.

During my four days here, I could not help but wish the Timorese well, but this was tinged with some trepidation because of the nation's recent past.

President Ramos Horta, however, has the perfect comeback.

'How long do you think it would take for a Chinese takeaway in a major city to turn a profit?' he asks during the interview.

Acknowledging that he is no expert in the restaurant business, he says that he presumes it will take at least three to five years. What more for a country like Timor Leste.

But he is under no illusions about the need for Timor Leste's leaders to deliver. By 2012, he expects the country to take its rightful place in Asean, free of the crutch of UN assistance and in complete charge of its own destiny.

'If by then we still need a UN presence, it will be because we the East Timorese leadership had failed in the test. We should all resign for sheer incompetence,' he says.

'We were given ample opportunity, ample time, and we did not deliver.'

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