Mon, May 01, 2006 - Page 5 News List

Adventure tourism taking off in rebuilt East Timor

RENEWAL Seven years after mobs murdered 1,400 and destroyed 70 percent of the nation's buildings, a trickle of tourists is arriving for diving and stunning scenery

AFP , DILI

"Guerrilla" tours cashing in on East Timor's strife-torn history have begun and whale-spotting could be a drawcard one day, but for now the idea of adventure -- with a spot of world-class diving -- is the lure for tourists trickling into the world's youngest nation.

Official statistics are not yet kept in the nation that was occupied by Indonesia for 24 years and turns four next month, but industry insiders estimate about 3,000 tourists arrived in East Timor last year.

It's hardly a crowd but a dramatic improvement on earlier years, says Eduardo Massa, director of East Timor's first travel agency Timor MegaTours.

"It was totally different," he says of last year. "At last we started to have groups, small groups coming, and we had several cruises coming as well ... Suddenly everybody looked at East Timor and felt confident to come here."

Before that, the memory of the violence stoked by Indonesian-backed militias in 1999 was still too fresh, he said.

Enraged by the overwhelming vote for independence from Indonesia in a UN-backed referendum, the mobs murdered an estimated 1,400 people and obliterated some 70 percent of all buildings in the half-island nation.

But now, Massa boasts, "Timor is safe as any other place in the world."

Still, the lack of infrastructure -- poor roads, limited places to stay and minimal services -- means only a certain type of adventure tourist is coming for now to enjoy the stunning scenery of Asia's poorest nation.

"We had a group of Japanese whose average age was 60, but still they slept in tents and were happy to do that -- but of course, they were looking for adventure, they were not looking for a five-star hotel," Massa says. "Of course people complain about the roads, but this is the best for adventure. You need a four-wheel drive, it's so fantastic."

What does the former Portuguese colony have to offer?

"Because of the coffee and all of those mountains, it's really fantastic for trekking," Massa enthuses, referring to East Timor's extensive shaded coffee plantations, which were mostly started under the orders of the Portuguese.

In particular, Massa's company is about to start running treks led by about 20 former resistance fighters.

"They know this country. They know the hideouts ... When they talk to you about the places you are passing by, it's so different from if I am talking," he explains.

And unlike in many other post-conflict nations, landmines are not hindering exploration of the hills for undiscovered tourist spots.

Simon Jeffery, 36, who has worked for Dive Timor Lorosae for three years leading guided dives and captaining their boat, waxes lyrical about the potential for diving in the young nation.

"Big tour organizers come out here and love the place -- it's world-class diving," he says, comparing it to Bali and Australia's Great Barrier Reef.

"The exciting thing about it is that it's all virgin territory. There are virtually 1,000 -- or 10,000 -- dive sites out there that have never been dived before," he enthuses. "At traditional dive destinations like Thailand and Fiji now there'll be 200 people at a site and you can't see the fish."

Another potential he sees is whale-spotting.

"There's been a time when we've had pilot whales and dolphins, thousands and thousands of them," he says, gesturing out to the azure waters lapping Dili's beaches from the restaurant he also runs.

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