For nearly a quarter of a century, East Timor had been the scene of armed struggle for independence and brutal bloodshed unleashed by pro-Jakarta militants. Now, with independence just around the corner, officials in the capital, Dili, hope East Timor will become the place where people will go to scuba dive and have fun.
An instructor is teaching his students about the finer points of scuba-diving equipment. He is with The FreeFlow dive shop, one of three scuba-diving businesses to open in recent months in East Timor's capital Dili.
Owners of The FreeFlow are among the first investors in East Timor's tourist trade. They hope the early start will give them a leg up, but admit their $75,000 investment was risky.
The FreeFlow's Ann Turner says "it was the gamble of a lifetime. We came in here, and just did it. One of the reasons that we thought that it would be a good idea to come here was the very lack of legislation, so that it would give us a chance to get in on the ground floor and hope that legislation in a sense would be built around us. And in a sense, it has been."
Decades of armed struggle between East Timor's guerillas and the Indonesian military have kept the territory isolated from outsiders. The violence is gone, East Timor's leaders point out, but what remains are the beautiful coral reefs, tropical beaches, mountains and clean air. They hope that will attract tourists, starting with those who like roughing it.
Acting Foreign Minister Jose Ramos-Horta says "they might not want to spend much money on expensive hotels, but they spend money on food and so on. And that is made by the local people. The expensive hotels do not mean that money stays in the country. So we will cater to backpackers."
But East Timor also wants to attract the more up-market travelers weary of crowded and commercialized tourist resorts elsewhere in the region. "Business people want a break from their jobs and they want to relax in a place that does not have too much commercial hassle like you have in Thailand and you have in Bali and so on," he says.
To bring in the capital needed to develop the tourism industry, East Timor's government has to enact a number of laws, including investment protection measures, commercial code, company and tax legislation and property laws. Jose Teixeira, chairman of one of the government's foreign trade and investment committees, is aware of the government's task. "We need to attract foreign direct investment to develop East Timor economically," he says. "So we will not be placing unnecessary barriers in front of investors. But, of course, it will be guided toward increasing East Timor's capacity to earn national income and 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."
For the next three years, the government will be relying for a good portion of its budgetary needs on financial assistance from the international community. Its priority will be poverty alleviation and the development of East Timor's agriculture.
But developing the tourism industry is also high on the government's agenda. It hopes people will soon associate East Timor's mountains and beaches with climbing and sunbathing, not shooting and mayhem.