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Balibo: a new destination for tourists and a new opportunity for improving livelihoods in Timor-Leste

September 2013 Newsletter

Timor-Leste’s natural landscape, unique culture and historical heritage can go a long way to create income and job opportunities for women and men throughout the country. With MDF’s support, new and innovative businesses will bring more tourists to more remote areas of the country and will help create opportunities along the way.

Tourism in Timor-Leste

Timor-Leste has a relatively new economy which now faces the challenge of diversifying away from dependence on oil and gas revenues. Other sectors of the economy, such as tourism, are still developing and have high potential for growth and job creation. Timor-Leste has a wide-variety of tourism assets through its inherited natural beauty, historical heritage and rich culture. Growth in the tourism sector can bring non-agricultural economic activities to otherwise remote places, helping to diversify the economy, creating more jobs and increasing incomes throughout the country.

Beyond Dili, tourists mostly visit the Eastern districts, predominantly Baucau and Lautem. These Eastern areas are well serviced by tour operators and are easier to travel for tourists – with good roads and accommodation options.

While the Western part of Timor-Leste is home to beautiful mountains, lakes, hot springs, coffee plantations and a unique traditional culture and colonial heritage, it is not well marketed for tourism or visited by tourists. While the appeal of this area might be high, one major drawback is the lack of accommodation and restaurant facilities for tourists. Throughout the Western region, there are very few places to stay and eat between Dili and Bobonaro (see map). So tourists tend to take day trips from Dili or they briskly continue to Bobonaro, meaning they spend limited amounts of time and money in the areas along the way. However these areas in between Dili and Bobonaro contain numerous tourist attractions including beaches, caves, fishing lakes, and a 350-year-old Portuguese Fort in Balibó, one of Timor-Leste’s most significant heritage sites.

Balibó and the Balibó House Trust

The fort in Balibo, currently being restored to receive new tourists

The fort in Balibo, as it was being restored to receive new tourists

Balibó is known not only for its Fort but for other important events related to Timor-Leste’s history. It was the location where the 1976 declaration for integration into Indonesia was made, which is now commemorated with a statue. Balilbó is also the location of the former residence of the five Australian journalists, known as the Balibó Five, who were killed by the Indonesian army in 1975. In 2002, the Victorian State Government in Australia and the families of the five journalists established Balibó House Trust (BHT) in the memory of those five journalists. Over the last twelve years BHT has engaged with the community of Balibó on education and community development activities. Just recently, BHT was awarded a 30-year lease by the Government of Timor-Leste to utilize the historic Portuguese Fort in Balibó. BHT is currently undertaking restoration of the Fort and adding a restaurant, museum, and boutique hotel for visitors and a community garden for the Balibó community. The revitalized Fort and restaurant was launched earlier this week, in the presence of Timorese as well as international dignitaries, and will attract more visitors to the area. The boutique hotel will open later in 2014, and will offer guests visiting the Fort or those passing through the area, high-quality accommodation where they can stay overnight and explore the region.

MDF’s support to tourism development in Balibó

Balibó is a strategic place, as the hotel will not only provide an option for visitors to stay longer and enjoy the services and attractions offered by the Balibó community, but will also provide a base to stay overnight and spend more time exploring other areas within the Western Districts.

Market Development Facility (MDF) has recognized that the development of Balibó Fort Hotel fills a major gap for accommodation and restaurants in the West part of Timor-Leste and its success can serve as an example to encourage others in the area to cater better to tourists.

Because it is a new activity for BHT and the Balibó community, MDF is supporting BHT to ensure that the hotel can operate in a sustainable and commercially profitable way. MDF is supporting BHT to develop local capacity to operate and manage the high-quality tourist facilities, including the newly restored fort, its hotel and restaurant. The facilities will create new jobs in Balibó, so this support also includes staff training and development – to ensure international levels of service for all visitors. In addition, MDF is assisting BHT with marketing Balibó and its new offerings, as an international heritage site and a top-notch tourist destination in Timor-Leste.

Balibó House Trust Executive Officer, Rich Gilmore stated “The MDF Timor-Leste team is innovative and professional. The Trust is delighted to be working in partnership with MDF, whose support has been critical in helping to achieve our economic and social goals in Timor-Leste”.

Benefits for Balibó and beyond

The new facilities will provide job opportunities for more than 10 members of the Balibó community in its initial phase; and as the visitor numbers grow, so will those opportunities. As more visitors come to the newly restored Fort and Hotel, opportunities will be created for the local community to engage with the tourist market and earn additional income – through increased sourcing of local produce by the restaurant; sales of local handicrafts; and other activities such as tour guide services and additional accommodation.

As Balibó and its community become more attractive and amenable to guests more tourists will flow into the area – creating opportunities for tourism throughout the West. Its success can also encourage others to establish more accommodation options and facilities for tourists in the districts, creating job and income opportunities throughout the country in a new and developing sector.