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Tourism in Timor?

Although East Timor's natural and historical assets are compelling, to attract more—and more mainstream—visitors the country will have to improve its infrastructure. Dili is less than two hours by air from two popular vacation destinations, Australia and Bali, but air links are still limited and expensive. There's one daily flight, on Merpati, from Bali (about $260 round-trip) and a pair of Air North puddle jumpers that fly from Darwin, Australia (about $600). A new joint venture, Air Loro Sae, also plans to begin the Darwin-to-Dili hop this year.

Accommodations likewise present a challenge; the country has only 550 guest rooms, including converted shipping containers and a small ocean liner originally brought in to house UN staff. The UN's presence meant good times for hoteliers, with the coffin-like container spaces running $100 per night. Prices have slid, but for the rates I paid—$35 anight at Dili's Hotel Turismo and $55 a night at the Pousada Baucau—I expected at least reliable electricity, hot water on tap, and a working telephone, none of which I got. The government has encouraged small guesthouse projects, but any large-scale developments are on hold until the country enacts foreign-investment and land-title legislation.

José Teixeira, the country's secretary of state for tourism, environment, and investment, is forthright about the situation. "Timor is very much a raw product and it will interest some people, not everybody,'' he told me while we sipped beers in the Hotel Turismo's garden-like courtyard. "This is a developing country, but there are a lot of positives at this stage of development. We have a more stable government than many countries that became independent twenty years ago.''

Last October, the country had its coming-out party, tourism-wise, at the Pacific Asia Travel Association Travel Mart in Singapore, where representatives met with a steady stream of curious travel companies. The meeting's opening address was delivered by Xanana (everyone calls him by a single diminutive, like a soccer star): "We are developing our tourism industry from ground zero," he allowed. "The challenge we face is by no means small."

East Timor welcomed 4,000 foreign visitors in 2002; most had some connection to relief organizations. Within five years, Teixeira hopes to more than double that figure, to 10,000 a year, a sizable increase but still a fairly modest number. "We don't want to be another Bali,'' he notes. "We don't believe that's sustainable for a place like Timor.'' Most experts agree that keeping things small and focused is the country's best strategy. "There are enough destinations in the Pacific-Asia region that Timor probably would be best off as a niche market," says PATA vice president Peter A. Semone, ticking off diving, ecotourism, and cultural and historical tours as promising areas.

Sure enough, people with those interests—who tend to be both motivated and affluent—are already starting to make the trip. "Divers are always looking for the newest, most remote, untouched destination," Mialszygrosz explained. "We saw the possibility that people would spend a little extra money to come and not be too upset about the accommodations, as long as they could go on a great dive and have a cold beer."

Melbourne-based Intrepid Travel began bringing in small groups, primarily Australian, last May, and has a half-dozen 15-day rambles planned for this year. "Most of our travelers are quite deeply interested in the history," says Jane Crouch, the firm's responsible-travel coordinator. "They're not just coming for a holiday. There is an incredible variety of landscape and scenery and things to do.''

East Timor is also working to develop new tourism products. The east end beyond Los Palos, where water-buffalo skulls decorate chieftains' graves and birdlife abounds, has been proposed as the country's first national park. On the Dili waterfront, a 1627 Portuguese garrison has been restored and will soon open as a cultural museum. But in a nation where many people live on less than $2 a day, it can be difficult to justify such initiatives. "Where do you place all of this stuff in the midst of trying to get all the kids to school and trying to eradicate tuberculosis and polio?" Teixeira asks rhetorically.

Still, the swift progress in East Timor is heartening. Photojournalist Daniel J. Groshong, who covered the conflict and has returned to record the country's natural wonders, knows his way around war-torn nations and believes Timor stacks up favorably. "It's doing very well," he says. "I was in Somalia—not doing well. Kashmir—a lot of potential, but there are security problems. If Timor can hold it together when the UN leaves, it's going to come out of this looking pretty good."

Standing outside the Hotel Timor after an excellent lunch of pan-fried barramundi, I had my own vision of the young nation's new measure of normalcy, when an old van with a layered, tiramisu-toned paint job trundled to a halt a few feet away. It was Mr. Yummy, East Timor's version of the Good Humor ice cream man, hawking double-chocolate-dipped cones for $1.25. Yes, I thought, this place has a real chance.

CHRISTOPHER R. COX, a feature reporter for the Boston Herald, last wrote for Travel + Leisure about the island of Molokai.

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