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Historic Balibo the site of a new tourism venture in Timor-Leste
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People gather to witness the opening of the Balibo Fort Hotel and Culture and Heritage Centre, Timor-Leste. Photo: James Maiden/MDF

The Balibo Fort Hotel and Culture and Heritage Centre was opened last week by Timor-Leste’s former President and Prime Minister Xanana Gusmão, with other government dignitaries and visitors including Australian Ambassador to Timor-Leste, Peter Doyle and former Victorian Premier, Steve Bracks in the historic mountain town in the West of the country.

Balibo, just 10 kilometers from the border with Indonesia has played host to many conflicts over the centuries. The Portuguese used it as a colonial stronghold, Australian troops barracked there in WWII, thousands of UN peacekeepers sheltered there during Timor-Leste’s newly gained independence, and most infamously five journalists, from Australia, New Zealand and the UK – the Balibo 5 – met their deaths in Balibo while investigating Indonesian forces advancing towards the annexation of Timor in 1975.

But the thick walls of the 350-year-old Portuguese fort that dominates the mountain-top now houses a different form of shelter – The Balibo Fort Hotel and Culture and Heritage Centre. Intrepid guests interested in the region’s rich cultural history and immense beauty can stay in top-class lodgings while being looked after by local staff from the surrounding village.

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Xanana Gusmão and Steve Bracks walk into the town of Balibo welcomed by local children. Photo: James Maiden/MDF

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Visitors and people involved in the establishment of the Hotel. Photo James Maiden/MDF

Steve Bracks, the Patron of the Balibo House Trust and long time supporter of the initiative said “This is a place where people will come to see what happened here, to visit Maliana Springs, and also to see this beautiful vista here over the ocean and the border into Indonesia,” he said. “It’s going to be a great tourism icon.”

The Balibo House Trust – a non profit organisation set up by the families of the journalists and supported by the Victorian Government – bought the original house where the journalists lived, refurbished the site including structural works to the fort, built the hotel accommodation and museum, and renovated the house into a restaurant.

Through the partnership between MDF and the Balibo House Trust, essential elements in establishing the Hotel and Cultural Centre were achieved. MDF supported Balibo House Trust in sourcing the operator of the hotel, designing its operating model, marketing strategies, training local community members in hospitality and tourism who have been hired to work in the business, and some other crucial infrastructure related projects.

“You need showcases, you need examples of what you can do together, and this is one of them. Of course because of the five journalists who were killed by invading Indonesian troops in 1975, but this gives this place a special significance,” Steve Bracks said.

“But let’s not forget the hundreds of thousands of Timorese who died in fighting for independence – it has got that bond between Australia and Timor,” he said.

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Balibo community members watch the opening of the hotel in their town. Photo: James Maiden/MDF

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Former President and Prime Minister Xanana Gusmão talks with Balibo community members in the grounds of the new hotel. Photo James Maiden/MDF

The Hotel serves not only as an important place of heritage for people to visit and learn about the rich history of the area, but also as an important job creation and growth mechanism for the town of Balibo. Twenty members of the community have already gained employment with the hotel and been through a rigorous course in hospitality and tourism.

Local suppliers and service providers are also benefiting. The area is known for its hiking trails, hot springs, caves, and rivers – all activities local community members can be engaged in as guides and support people. Locally grown and produced foods will be prepared and served at the Hotel’s restaurant.

“It is a practical example of what can be done to assist with tourism development, to generate jobs, to source local food, to source local employees and labour – trained with the assistance of the Market Development Facility,” said Bracks.

Balibó Fort Hotel’s own website  www.balibofort.com  will be fully operational soon but in the meantime email  enquiries on the facilities and how to book accommodation can be directed to – rooms@balibofort.com