Subject: AGE: Tourism & Timor

The Age Timorese play spot the tourist - but they must be tough

Author: Jill Jolliffe

Date: 31/05/2003

Mountains, clear blue waters and friendly villagers. East Timor is uncontaminated by tourism - and that's the problem. Jill Jolliffe reports from Dili.

A conference last month to promote tourism as a key to East Timor's development was a major success - with one hitch: there wasn't a tourist in sight.

Tourism Secretary Jose Teixeira presided over lively discussions on the merits of ecotourism and East Timor's splendid beaches, but not a single representative of the tourist species could be found.

Worried guests at the historic Turismo Hotel launched a ``find the tourist" competition - in vain.

Visitors are staying away in droves because of the new nation's war-torn reputation, travel warnings that it is liable to terrorist attack, the high price of air travel to the republic, its appalling roads and high living costs.

Then a balding Englishman appeared at the hotel and was pounced upon by tourist-hunters eager to hear his story.

Spencer Cullum-Bunce, 60, is a retired oil executive who checked out from his wife and children to see the world in his own style. ``Independence doesn't happen very often to countries and I wanted to see what East Timor was like," he said. His verdict? ``Paradise!"

He added: ``There's no McDonald's and no KFC. More tourists will come."

Then an elderly German judge and his wife appeared. They hired Rui Goncalves of Mega-tours for a three-day trip to the mountains. He specialises in cultural tours and the couple intended to visit animist temples. Torrential rains washed the road away, leaving them stranded for two days.

Mr Goncalves had waited months for tourists and wasn't deterred. ``They thought it a unique experience," he said.

``It was a great adventure and they met a lot of locals."

Mr Teixeira breathed a sigh of relief when eight tourists from Melbourne's Intrepid Travel arrived. Well-briefed, they knew they would be roughing it. Their 14-day trip cost $2090, with $1000 in air fares on top.

Melanie Sheridan, 29, a writer for Beat magazine, had saved for 10 years for a special trip and leapt at Intrepid's offer. It covers most areas of East Timor, including Atauro Island. The group witnessed historic celebrations for the first anniversary of independence, had coffee with Nobel laureate Jose Ramos Horta, climbed the inspirational Mount Ramelau, shared meals with villagers and snorkelled in clear blue waters.

``Timor's much more beautiful than I imagined," Ms Sheridan said. ``It hasn't been contaminated by tourism."

Accommodation had been rudimentary, with the travellers sometimes having to use squat toilets and sleep on floors. But Aaron Hart, 24, of Coburg, had no doubt it was worth the price. He was shocked by the poverty in the countryside but came to explore the real East Timor, not just to see pretty things.

For Mr Teixeira, such tourists represent the country's future.

He recalled that during the conference, experts suggested that the East Timorese should stop bemoaning their wrecked infrastructure. He said: ``Their message was, `Just do it!' This sort of tourism isn't like Bali - people come for its uniqueness and don't mind paying. One day tourism will be the biggest employer here."

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