Subject: E. Timor sees tourism future from natural beauty

Received from Joyo Indonesian News

East Timor sees tourism future from natural beauty

By Dean Yates

DILI, East Timor, May 21 (Reuters) - About the only thing pro-Jakarta militias didn't destroy in their rampage after East Timor voted in 1999 to break free was something they couldn't touch -- the territory's stunning natural beauty.

Now, newly independent East Timor hopes to cash in on scuba diving, rugged mountain walks and spectacular sunsets -- a potential paradise for tourists seeking adventure.

"They are starting from a low-base, but...now East Timor is independent and at peace, tourism can also be used to help change its image to the outside world," said Craig Wilson, an economic policy adviser who helped draw up a national development plan for East Timor.

Around half the size of Belgium and a little smaller than Hawai, East Timor became the world's newest nation on Monday after centuries of Portuguese colonisation and more recently, 24 years of brutal Indonesian control.

The territory voted in 1999 to split from Indonesia, triggering a vengeful response from pro-Jakarta militias who, with backing from the Indonesian military, left most of East Timor in ruins. The United Nations ran East Timor up until independence.

Officials say they want to begin by focusing on eco-tourism or adventure travel in Asia's poorest country, attracting the sort of people who can make do without five-star service.

That's just as well, because anyone expecting amenities or service like Indonesia's famous resort island of Bali, a 90-minute flight to the west, is in for a shock.

Targets are modest, with East Timor seeking 5,000 tourists by 2007 from virtually none. That will hardly drive the economy, but officials say it will diversify income from the current sources of largely untapped offshore oil reserves and coffee plantations.

Indonesian statistics show just 1,374 foreigners visited East Timor in 1996, a time of tension during its occupation and low-level guerrilla conflict.

PLENTY TO OFFER?

East Timor offers mountain bike riding, hiking along horse trails dating from Portuguese times, white-sand beaches and stunning vistas from the hilltops that rise up from many parts of the coastline. And the scuba diving does not get any easier.

Drive any distance out of the capital, Dili, park your car, put on your gear and walk into the ocean.

Generally, the beach quickly drops away to pristine reefs and a dazzling array of fish.

Some foreign residents say former independence guerrillas could take a leaf out of Vietnam's book, where ex-Viet Cong fighters take tourists on tours of the Cu Chi tunnel complex that made life a misery for U.S. soldiers during the Vietnam War.

In East Timor, ex-guerrillas could become guides, retracing the trails they used fighting Indonesian soldiers, they say.

But one thing that may turn tourists away is the cost.

East Timor has adopted the U.S. dollar as its currency, and due to the large U.N. presence leading up to independence, prices can be excessive.

Basic accommodation in Dili -- no TV or air-conditioning - can go for $30-40 a night, several times higher than similar standard lodgings in Bali.

Getting to East Timor is also not easy, with direct flights only from either Darwin in northern Australia or Bali.

Of East Timor's towns that were badly destroyed in 1999, Dili has regained some charm, helped by its curved seafront and jagged mountains that rise up nearby.

Mountain Maubisse, two hours to the south, is also popular.

As for the Timorese, they are ready with open arms.

"Please tell tourists to come. Then I can sell more of these," said one waif-like boy hawking independence day T-shirts.


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