Undaunted by its fledgling economy and tiny stature, Timor-Leste has started to develop religious tourism to give the fragile country a much-needed boost and help promote devotion to Catholicism in Indonesia.
Etelvina Pinto, 60, who has worked for the last 35 years as a catechist at St. Anthony Church in Dili, said he had previously only heard about Oecusse but had never gotten the opportunity to visit before.
“It’s amazing. At my old age I just feel blessed to be able to see the sites and relics with my own eyes,” he said.
“I hope more people, particularly young people, will come to these places so they can stay closer to God,” Pinto added.
“This kind of spiritual pilgrimage further strengthens my devotion,” he said.
Pilgrims pray through the intercession of St. Anthony in Oecusse during their April 20-24 trip. (Photo by Thomas Ora/ucanews.com)
Luis Barreto, the 50-year-old chairman of the St. Therese of the Child Jesus parish council in Bedois, a suburb outside Dili, said the three-day spiritual trek was almost as awe-inspiring as a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for him.
“They both have the same kind of sacred ambiance,” he told ucanews.com. “The only difference is that those in Jerusalem are featured in the Bible and many people know about them and go there to pay homage to them,” he said.
The first Portuguese missionaries arrived in Lifau in 1515, 500 years before the district was reinvented as the Special Economic Zone of Oecusse.
Much of this heritage has been preserved in the form of Gothic churches built in the popular Portuguese style of the 16th century, a relic of St. Anthony, the lying statue of Jesus (Senhor de Morto) — only open for public veneration on Good Friday — Marian pilgrim sites, and more.
Lifau is in Oecusse, which borders the cities of Atambua and Kefamenanu in West Timor, which is controlled by Jakarta.
Fernando Baptista Nuno, dean of the Faculty of Economics at the National University of Timor Lorosae, said developing tourism is part of the government‘s strategic plan (2011-2030) to create diversified economic growth from non-oil and gas sectors.
“Because since the country’s independence, the state budget heavily depends on oil and gas,” he said.
Visitors who travel from one place to another can boost the economy of local communities because they will buy unique crafts and local products. From the aspect of education, it can provide opportunities for young people to learn a foreign language so they can become tourist guides.
“So, it will create more jobs,” he said.
A replica of a ship used by the first missionaries to the island is on display in Lifau, Oecusse. The installation was inaugurated in 2017, two years after the country celebrated 500 years of evangelization. (Photo by Thomas Ora/ucanews.com)
There are four hotels and 20 inns in Oecusse that stand to benefit from this development.
“Currently, the number of visitors is low, unlike before the year 2012 when many UN staff visited the area,” said Alda Lay, owner of the Inay Sakato Hotel.
Father Angelo Salsinha, coordinator of the trip to Oecusse, said the church has identified dozens of religious tourism destinations, with the goal of preserving local culture and history, as well as boosting the economy.
He said pilgrimages to Oecusse will be officially launched for international groups in August, in the form of two packages that run for 12 or 18 days. Christour Timor will manage the flow.
Robert Pangaribuan, who is in charge of Christour Timor — a subsidiary of Jakarta-based Christour — said the group is ready to cooperate with the government and local churches, and will encourage foreign tourists to visit Timor-Leste.
He said since 2013 he has organized about 200 Timorese pilgrims to visit the Vatican, Jerusalem, Israel and Fatima, with each trip costing an average of $3,000 per person. He hoped visitors and expats would spend similar amounts in Timor-Leste.
“This will greatly help improve the country’s revenue,” Pangaribuan said.
Bishop Virgilio do Carmo da Silva of Dili said it is time for the church and government to unite and develop forms of religious tourism that are rich not only on the spiritual side but also in social, economic, cultural and historical aspects.
“Sacred places are not only bringing people closer to God. They also have economic and cultural values,” the prelate said.
The bishop asked parish priests in Dili Diocese to stand on the front-line and work with the people who maintain these religious sites, not only in terms of keeping them clean but also creating the kind of atmosphere that gives pilgrims peace of mind.
Father Albino Marques, parish priest of St. Anthony Church in Oecusse, said the parish has prepared accommodation for tourists who want to spend time in the district.
“We have also trained a group of 15 young people to be guides,” she said.