August 9, 2017
In July, Timor-Leste held its 4th parliamentary election, heralding in a new government, and potentially new leadership both within key ministries and at the prime ministerial level. Such leadership changes come at a critical time for the oil-dependent island nation, with warnings that if it doesn’t diversify its economy beyond oil extraction, the country’s petroleum wealth fund may be exhausted by 2030.
With Timor-Leste’s natural beauty, rich history, and cultural heritage, there is significant untapped potential to develop tourism as a diverse and inclusive industry to drive economic development. However, the Government of Timor-Leste has not dedicated sufficient resources to develop tourism, with the government’s tourism budget for 2017 at just $6.3 million, inclusive of salaries and operational costs. Limited financial resources, compounded by a failure to promote the country’s unique assets, has left Timor-Leste with a nascent tourism sector, which in 2014 generated an estimated $14.6 million.
Visitor numbers in Timor-Leste are also low. While the government frequently claims visitor arrivals to be synonymous with tourist arrivals, research conducted by The Asia Foundation suggest the real number to be far lower. The Asia Foundation found that in 2014 only 43 percent of the country’s total airport arrivals engaged in leisure activities—of which only 17 percent traveled to Timor-Leste for the primary reason of holiday travel. Such proportions indicate that of the 59,811 passenger arrivals Timor-Leste received in 2014, no more than 5,000 were holidaying leisure travelers.
Unique environmental, historical, and cultural assets, coupled with an unsaturated tourist market, should sufficiently ensure that Timor-Leste has the capacity to attract travelers already mobilized in the region. In 2016 Bali received almost 5 million foreign arrivals. Leveraging existing low-cost carriers, if Timor-Leste were to attract only 1 percent of the already mobilized market visiting Bali, the result would have the capacity to double its current number of visitors, and have similar growth effects on the income generated from the tourist economy.
Debates on tourism development in a country like Timor-Leste, a small island nation with limited infrastructure and low tourist arrivals, are often centered on the causality effect, whereby low tourist numbers have been used to rationalize capital intensive infrastructure projects, in the hope that the “build and they will come” prophecy will prevail. While tourism private sector investment remains concentrated in accommodation development, and public investment focusing largely in infrastructure, limited activities on tourism promotion have resulted in international perceptions of Timor-Leste being marred by foreign government travel warnings and early years of post-independence instability. In 2016, as part of The Asia Foundation’s study to understand non-visitor perceptions of Timor-Leste, residents from Darwin who were directly connected to Dili by an accessible air route, but who had not previously traveled to Timor-Leste, were asked to describe their sentiment relating to Timor-Leste.
As the analysis demonstrates, while potential travelers are aware of Timor-Leste’s tourist attractions like its beaches and history, respondents still hold strong perceptions of war, unrest, poverty, and occupation—despite the country being free from instability for over 10 years.
Timor-Leste is already equipped with the natural strengths needed to promote the country as a tourist destination with unique and attractive offerings. To ensure a sustainable tourist economy driven by data of actual tourism demands rather than solely tourism supply, it is imperative that Timor-Leste develop competitiveness in the region. Tourism partnerships that address both supply and demand do not need to emulate the efficiency and functionality of Singapore, nor be shrouded by unmet tourist expectations by burdening itself with the Sisyphean endeavor of replicating another Bali.
Over the last 18 months, Timor-Leste’s Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture, with support from The Asia Foundation, has been developing an international tourism marketing campaign to change foreign perceptions of Timor-Leste and to attract visitors to travel. With funding from the Australian Embassy in Timor-Leste, we have conducted market research into target destinations, drawn on information collected from previous travelers, and utilized an inclusive and evidence-based approach to tourism marketing.
The newly approved logo, is a strong identifier for the country’s heritage. Comprised of the umalulik (sacred house), unique to Timor-Leste, and a rising sun, synonymous with the country’s name-sake, the logo has been designed in a manner that is visually appealing, while also being playful and welcoming to a largely untapped tourism market. Representing Timor-Leste’s linguistic relationship with the sun, and the umalulik representing the country’s balance between culture, family and society, the colors complete the logo and are reflective of the country’s history and flag design, evoking pride, resilience, and independence.
The “Explore the Undiscovered” campaign captures the essence of what awaits in Timor-Leste. Be it the country’s marine biodiversity, untrodden hiking paths, unique cultural traditions, or its richly defiant and proud history.
Designed to take Timor-Leste to the global market, the development of Timor-Leste’s tourism brand is an important step not only toward tourism promotion, but also toward the inclusive development of the sector as a whole. The existence of a brand has the capacity to build consensus amongst private sector actors, towards a concerted approach to tourism development—an approach that has the capacity to improve the operating environment for government and non-government bodies alike.
Together with the country’s official tourism website, www.timorleste.tl, the brand serves as a vehicle to enable initial promotion of Timor-Leste to international markets in the region. Be it on social media, in flight magazines, or on the billboards of target markets overseas, the launch of a tourism campaign is the first step toward attracting visitors to travel to Timor-Leste.
However, to enable this, the newly elected 7th Constitutional Government of Timor-Leste must make sufficient budgetary contributions in the coming weeks and months, to enable targeted tourism marketing campaigns.
As Timor-Leste prepares for new leadership, the country’s incoming leaders are already equipped with promotional tools to charter new ground in tourism promotion, and explore undiscovered economic opportunities.
Gobie Rajalingam is The Asia Foundation’s Tourism program manager in Timor-Leste. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.
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