Cultural values... East Timor is aiming to develop 'low-volume, high-value, eco-based and community-oriented tourism'.

Cultural values... East Timor is aiming to develop 'low-volume, high-value, eco-based and community-oriented tourism'. Photo: Getty Images

East Timor is an emerging tourist destination keen to avoid its neighbours' mistakes, writes James Rose.

East Timor is at a critical point as its nascent tourism industry finds its feet and reaches out to the world. The world is increasingly willing to reach back, too.

I don't think the standard Bali tourist would be satisfied with Timor-Leste. 

Incoming tourist visa-holders to this dishevelled, half-island country just an hour's flying time from Australia's north, are growing. Darwin-based Airnorth runs the only daily jet service to Dili in its 76-seater E170s, and its marketing manager, Tammy Baczynski, says passenger numbers are increasing.

Sunset at city beach, east of Dili, Timor Leste. <i>Photo: Lucy Rickard.</i> Click for more photos

Quiet escape on our doorstep: Timor Leste

Sunset at city beach, east of Dili, Timor Leste. Photo: Lucy Rickard.

"We anticipate a slow and steady increase in tourism numbers over the next few years as the country further develops its infrastructure and more tourism opportunities are opened for the destination," she says.

Many come looking for the pristine and easily accessible diving spots and spectacular, mountainous hinterland, where serious trekking and mountain-biking opportunities have created a buzz among adventure-seekers. Less adventurous tourists might find little of interest here, however, as infrastructure is limited, even along the stunning coastal strip on Dili's northern edge. Few Timorese speak English and a culture of professional hospitality is still largely absent.

There is a plan, says Ann Turner, the co-owner of Dili's FreeFlow Diving and a tourism industry consultant to the Timor-Leste government. The strategy is for "low-volume, high-value, eco-based and community-oriented tourism," she says.

Even as Timor-Leste works out what kind of destination it is going to be, there seems a consensus on what it is not. "I don't think the standard Bali tourist would be satisfied with Timor-Leste," Turner says.

Timor-Leste is mainly Catholic and with a social conservatism that means street hawking, pirated brands, sex trading and party-style tourism that thrive in some Asian destinations are widely frowned upon and barely exist here.

The country's relative prudishness might become its strength as the Timorese develop their tourism industry. One obvious pitch is for religious tourists, who already come to Timor-Leste to get involved in community service.

Another is for older tourists, so-called grey nomads, for whom the quieter vibe and the Timorese respect for older people are appreciated. Cultural, historical and eco-intrepid tourism options also abound.

Even so, Timor-Leste is struggling with this balancing act. Long-term planning tends to be undermined by a culture of resistance to colonisation, developed during more than 500 years of foreign domination, and by poverty.

If mass tourism takes hold, observers believe it is likely to be aimed at an emerging style of mainstream tourist looking for a culturally sensitive, integrated and sustainably developed destination. As that market grows, Timor-Leste, for once, might find itself on the right side of history.