Less than two years after winning independence, war-ravaged East Timor is hoping to lure travelers to its coral reefs and colonial towns. Christopher R. Cox reports on the country's prospects for success


Jesus is hard to miss. Nearly 100 feet tall, he beckons from atop an enormous metal globe on a promontory overlooking Dili, the capital of East Timor. It's said that Cristo Rei is the second-tallest such statue in the world, exceeded only by Rio de Janeiro's Cristo Redentor. Some note that the figure, erected by Indonesia during its bloody occupation here, doesn't face this devoutly Roman Catholic country. With embracing arms, Jesus instead looks west—toward Jakarta.

The orientation is fitting: for centuries, it seemed that even God had turned his back on East Timor. But on May 20, 2002, after decades of struggle for independence, the tiny country became the world's newest nation.

For several years, East Timor (now officially called Timor-Leste) has profited from a massive, multi-billion-dollar rebuilding effort led by the United Nations.

By the time the organization's mandate expires this May, though, most staffers will have departed, leaving the country to grapple with a tremendous loss of income. As in other battle-scarred places (such as Afghanistan), East Timor has proclaimed tourism a linchpin of its development strategy. That notion plays well in press releases, but can a remote, impoverished place best known for bloody conflict hope to attract even the most adventurous tourists?

The fact that East Timor is secure enough to contemplate a tourism industry indicates how far the Connecticut-sized country has come. Portugal established a foothold here in the mid 16th century, but during the 400-plus years of its rule barely gave the colony a thought. Naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, who passed through Dili in 1861, noted that "nobody seems to care the least about the improvement of the country.... There has not been a mile of road made beyond the town."

Things hadn't progressed much by 1975—the colony then had a grand total of eight miles of paved road—when newly socialist Portugal finally divested itself of its colonies. In East Timor, civil war erupted. The pro-independence Fretilin party triumphed, leading Indonesian president Suharto to worry that other secessionist movements in the sprawling nation might be emboldened. Just 48 hours after a December 1975 state visit to Jakarta by President Gerald Ford, Indonesian paratroops seized Dili. Fretilin fighters took to the mountains and began waging a guerrilla war. The decades-long struggle would ultimately claim more than 100,000 lives—a devastating total in a nation of fewer than 1 million.

In 1999, weary of international criticism and the expense of occupation, Jakarta allowed a referendum on self-determination; about 78 percent of the Timorese voted for independence. The Indonesian army and its local militias retaliated by slaughtering civilians, scuttling ships, and destroying three-quarters of the country's buildings. "I felt like an ambulance driver arriving at the site of a car crash and finding a dismembered body in a state of clinical death," said the late Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN troubleshooter sent to oversee the country's resuscitation.

Five years on, the UN considers East Timor a success story. There is an elected government, led by the charismatic guerrilla poet-turned-president José Alexander "Xanana'' Gusmão, who keeps his Dili office in a half-ruined building dubbed Palacio das Cinzas (Palace of the Ashes). Offshore oil and natural-gas fields are being developed; they are projected to generate $3 billion over a 20-year period, beginning in 2005. And although soldiers still patrol the capital's somnolent streets, and power blackouts remain a daily vexation, Dili echoes with the sound of jackhammers and smells of fresh cement.

Beyond the capital lies a harshly beautiful land. Sere mountains rise dramatically from the water's edge. Monsoon forest drapes the island's south side. Driving eastward from Dili with Rui Gonçalves, who runs Timor Mega Tours, the only tour operator in the country, we passed empty beaches and fallow rice-paddy terraces before arriving at the town of Baucau, where lovely colonial buildings were spared from destruction in 1999. Another scenic route took us inland, snaking up slopes swathed in coffee plantations, to Maubisse, a hill station with panoramic views of 9,721-foot Mount Tatamailau, the country's highest peak.

Not surprisingly, the ghosts of East Timor's tragic past were everywhere we went: the mangroves near Metinaro, where students had been massacred; the gutted villas of Alieu, a mountain town nearly leveled during the occupation; the pastel-pink Pousada Baucau, which once served as a torture center. Communicating with the Timorese proved difficult—most speak only Tetum, a Portuguese-Malay argot—but I was struck by their affability and optimism. It reminded me of my travels in rural Cambodia, where everyone seemed to have a personal story encompassing both hope and horror.

One of Timor's greatest assets is offshore: warm, clear seas with pristine coral reefs. In a single one-hour dive, it's possible to see a multitude of tropical fish, as well as manta rays, sea turtles, sharks, and dugongs. Best of all, no charter is required: the shore diving is superb.

One morning I met up with Australian Mark Mialszygrosz, who runs Dive Timor Lorosae. Engine problems scuttled our planned run to Atauro Island, so we dropped anchor 10 minutes from Dili off Cristo Rei Beach. Except for a few fishermen, the place was deserted. After our snorkel, we motored back around the point, passing Cristo Rei. "One day he'll fall into the sea,'' said Mialszygrosz, smiling at the thought. "It'll be a hell of a dive site."

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.