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6 Oct, 2003

Head of World’s Newest Country Inaugurates PATA Travel Mart

SINGAPORE – The President of the world’s youngest country last week became the first head of state to inaugurate the annual travel mart of the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) and made a strong pitch for both visitors and investors to help him with nation building.

President Xanana Gusmao of Timor Leste told the Asia-Pacific travel industry that his country faces a serious problem with employment and needs to create jobs. Oil and gas are its primary sources of income at the moment but it needs to diversify by developing tourism and other industries like fisheries, coffee and agriculture.

Having attained independence in May 2002, and now seeking observer status in ASIAN, Timor Leste has also become a member of PATA and was given pride of place at the association’s travel mart in Singapore last week. Buyers queued up to find out more about tourism-related infrastructure, facilities and services in the infant nation.

With a population of less than a million, the country is rich in dive sites and rainforests populated with indigenous tribes. Most of the current visitors are businessmen interesting in exploiting the oil and gas resources.

Talks are under way with Merpati, the Indonesian carrier, about setting up an airline. Merpati flies a daily Boeing 737 from Bali to the capital of Dili and the Australian operator Airnorth does a double-daily service from Darwin, Australia. These are the only two international air-access points.

Visas are available to anyone upon arrival for 30 days upon payment of US$ 25, extendable for 90 days.

Tourism promotion to Timor Leste will help Thailand’s Central Group of Hotels which for the last three years has had a ‘floating hotel’ berthed at Dili port, five minutes walk from the capital’s Government House.

A converted cruise ship that was moved to Dili from Burma, the 133-room Central Maritime ‘hotel’ has two meeting rooms, a business centre, saunas and sun deck with swimming pool. Central’s director of international sales, Ms Jurairat Mongkolwongsiri, said business has fallen off in recent years following the pullout of UN teams.

Apart from the Central, Dili has only three other hotels of any reasonable standard although three more are said to be under construction. Rack rates are about US$ 120 but the decline in business has seen actual rates fall to as low as US$ 45. A large number of guest-houses and lodges have rates ranging from US$ 25-30.

President Gusmao was welcomed at the Mart by PATA President Peter de Jong who underscored the greeting in fluent Portuguese. Mr. Gusmao was accompanied by a tourism delegation, including an advisor from the Portuguese Ministry of Tourism and a representative from the private sector.

In both his main speech as well an exclusive interview with a small group of travel journalists, the president made clear that he did not want Timor Leste to become an oil-dependent nation but neither did he want to see the tourism industry going the same way as other countries in the region.

“In developing our tourism, we will respect the social and environmental integrity of the country. In managing our tourism, we will try to find the delicate balance between the required economical growth and sustainability along with community participation.”

He acknowledged concerns about crime-related security and safety in his country but said that was because young people did not have jobs.

He told the buyers, “You can build with us the security conditions, because without employment, without any other assistance like training programmes, we will not be able to assure the security.”

Timor Leste’s tourism development is also being helped by the World Tourism Organization and Unesco which is doing a study of the country’s heritage sites. A secretary of state for tourism has been appointed. Earlier this year, a major conference was held to generate ideas on ways to boost tourism.

Ann Turner, vice-president of the private sector Tourism Association of East Timor, who set up a diving operation three years ago, said local expatriates are generating more business for her than foreign visitors. However, she expressed hope that her presence at the PATA mart would change this ratio and help her achieve profitability by next year.

She said foreigners are allowed to hold 100pc shares in local companies but are not yet getting any tax holidays or other investment privileges.

Ms Turner said the Portuguese could look into a potential aviation link up with their other former Asian colony, Macau, which would develop feed out of Hong Kong.

She said there had been considerable interest in Timor Leste from European buyers at the PATA mart where the country’s colourful booth was designed and funded by the Macau tourism authority.

Costs are a problem. President Gusmao himself admitted that two days in Dili could potentially cost the visitor the equivalent of two weeks in Bali.

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