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Ecotourism Could Bring East Timor Much-Needed Revenues - 2002-08-11

As part of our occasional series on the effects of globalization on society and the world economy, we focus on the newly independent nation of East Timor.

After more than two decades of fighting between the country’s guerrilla independence movement and Indonesia’s occupying army, the leaders of East Timor hope to reap some of the benefits of globalization, by attracting foreign travelers and investors.

Patricia Nunan has the story of East Timor’s blossoming ecotourism trade.

Briton Ann Turner is part of a wave of new investors venturing to East Timor. She and her husband run The Freeflow, a dive shop based in East Timor’s capital Dili. They sold their house in Great Britain and invested roughly $75,000 here in order to be on the cutting edge of East Timor’s ecotourism market.

Ann Turner explains, “the market that we’re targeting are the divers that are currently diving Papua New Guinea for example, the divers who have been diving in certain parts of Indonesia, especially the divers who are no longer keen on diving certain parts of Indonesia.”

East Timor has been relatively isolated for almost three decades because of the conflict between its guerrilla independence army and the Indonesian military, sparked by Indonesia’s 1975 invasion.

That isolation has helped protect East Timor’s mountains, tropical beaches, and stunning coral reefs. And that makes East Timor an attractive spot for adventure tourists.

Foreign minister Jose Ramos-Horta notes it’s most likely East Timor will first attract backpackers traveling throughout Southeast Asia. “They might not want to spend much money on expensive hotels, but they spend money on food and so on. And that is produced by the local people,” he says. “The expensive hotels does not mean that money stays in the country. So we will cater to backpackers.”

But East Timor also wants to cater to the high end of the market.

“Business people they want a break from their jobs and they want to relax in a place that doesn’t have too much commercial hassle like you have in Thailand and you have in Bali and so on,” points out Mr. Ramos-Horta.

East Timor still needs foreign investors. At the moment, it’s making ends meet through grants from foreign donors, but the government wants that to end.

The government is now approving investor friendly legislation. But it is also going to be beneficial to East Timorese to benefit as well.

Jose Teixeira, East Timor’s minister for tourism, explains, “we need to attract foreign direct investment into East Timor to develop East Timor economically. So we will not be placing unnecessary, unreasonable barriers in front of investors. But of course it will be guided toward increasing East Timor’s capacity to earn national income, and also to increase the participation of Timorese. So it will be pro-investor, but it will also be in the interest of human development in East Timor.”

That way East Timor’s ecotourism may do more than bring in foreign capital. It could help its people emerge from the shadow of war.