Tourism in Dili, Timor Leste: Can it help to cure or will it make things worse?

In 1999, after a bitter struggle for many years, Timor Leste (in English East Timor) gained independence from Indonesia, which had occupied it since the Portuguese colonial rule was withdrawn in 1975. Since establishing its own government, problems have remained, most notably conflict between different factions of the community leading to violence and destruction on several occasions. This has meant reliance on support from UN peace keeping forces and Australian and Portuguese troops over the last 10 years. The western part of the island of Timor is still part of Indonesia. Australia is the nearest neighbour of the developed world, lying 400 km south east and it is from there that many business contacts and political links have been formed. The country is largely mountainous and heavily forested, with a tropical climate.

The population of Timor-Leste is around 1.1 million, with 75%, or 785,000 people, classified as living in rural areas. Timor-Leste has valuable natural resources, including one of the world’s most vital commodities, petroleum. according to the 2010 census. At present 80% of the working population are employed in the rural agriculture industry, while there is very little service sector in the capital city of Dili. Across the country unemployment and under-employment are estimated to be as high as 70% (ibid) it is estimated that over the next 16 years the youth of the country, already a large part of the total population, will be doubled (UNDP).

In recent years East Timor’s oil and gas reserves have been realised and strategic negotiations have taken place in order to retain some financial benefit of this within the country. This has meant that, despite being a fledgling nation, it has found itself with a certain amount of economic growth. Recently East Timorese finance minister spoke of how the country had made a remarkable recovery since the unrest and violence of 2006 (RMIT University 2011), experiencing a growth rate of 17% in the 3 years since the troubles, whereas most post-conflict economies usually see only 5-7% growth over the 5 years following conflict. However the problems still facing the country in terms of poverty and poor living conditions indicate that the benefits from this growth are not reaching the people and furthermore the East Timor government has to consider what will happen when the oil runs out and find alternative ways of investing current wealth for the future. From the early days of the independence it was asserted that ‘tourism is an economic necessity’ in East Timor (Carter 2001:41) but this has yet to be realised. In fact, compared with many other LDCs where tourism provides a large percentage of export revenue, for Timor tourism is as yet an insignificant export consideration (UNDP 2011).

Since its establishment as a new independent country at the beginning of the century, East Timor has stated aims to expand its tourism product into the international market, and many commentators have noted the huge potential for a successful tourism industry.

While recent years have seen some growth in visitor numbers and certain types of tourist attractions, in general, sixteen years on, Timor is still little known as a tourist destination. While acknowledging the practical advances in infrastructure and amenities that need to take place for tourism to flourish, this proposal intends to look at how the country’s tourism offer can be improved, streamlined  and made more attractive to international travellers.

Potential for Tourism development

The Strategic Development Plan (Timor-Leste Government, 2011) identifies eco-tourism, cultural tourism, religious tourism and event tourism as major types of tourism that are suitable for development in Timor-Leste. The tourism industry is likely to develop around the rich cultural and historic heritage. full repor here 

A research publication launched by The Asia Foundation’s office in Timor-Leste (2014) proves that the country’s tourism sector is indeed promising. Based on inbound arrivals, the study estimates that the industry is currently worth US$14.6 million per annum – placing it close behind coffee, which remains Timor-Leste’s primary export in the non-oil economy, at US$15 million per annum.However, the Government of Timor-Leste has not dedicated sufficient resources to develop tourism, with the government’s tourism budget for 2017 at just $6.3 million, inclusive of salaries and operational costs. Limited financial resources, compounded by a failure to promote the country’s unique assets, has left Timor-Leste with a nascent tourism sector, which in 2014 generated an estimated $14.6 million. study also indicates high satisfaction where 83% of travellers believed their experience met their expectations and almost equal proportions said they would recommend Timor-Leste to their friends and family.


Current research shows that the majority of travellers to Timor-Leste arrive from Australia, Indonesia and Portugal, with the primary reason for traveling to Timor-Leste being for work and business purposes. A minority of travellers to Timor-Leste visit for primarily holiday purposes.

Timor-Leste is blessed with tropical waters rich in marine life, white sand beaches, spectacular mountain ranges, unique Timorese culture, Portuguese colonial heritage and resistance history. There is also a calendar of special events, including the Tour de Timor bicycle race, the Dili ‘City of Peace’ Marathon and the Darwin to Dili Yacht Rally.

The tourism sector is at its early stages of development with limited, but growing, numbers of international tourists and an emerging tourist infrastructure

Timor-Leste has the potential to develop niche market offerings for visitors seeking adventure tourism, scuba diving and marine tourism, trekking or cultural and historical tourist experiences. Over the short to medium term, the capacity could be built to host international conferences and conventions.

There are already several major tourist sites:

  • Cristo Rei, a statue of Christ atop a globe, reminiscent of the landmark in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil looks down across the city and the beautiful coastline.


  • Religious pilgrimage sites. One of the most important of these is Soibada which is overlooked by the Aitara Hill on which stands a great banyan tree
  • Another site for religious pilgrimage is the summit of Mount Ramelau, where a statue of Virgin Mary is visited by many people who travel great distances to show their faith and devotion to God in a place of stunning natural beauty.
  • Timor-Leste’s unique political and resistance history can also be promoted, including sites of significance such as the Santa Cruz Cemetery, the Resistance Museum and the Museum of the Timor-Leste Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation, also known by its Portuguese acronym CAVR, which covers the events of 1975 to 1999 in Timor-Leste.
  • Dili is also the gateway to the island of Atauro where tourists can experience a true tropical island getaway with pristine beaches, rural villages, trekking and fishing.  There is a resort there, based on Eco-practices and run by an Australian company, but it is quite difficult to find information on how to access the island from (1)
  • The Central Zone could also be the main starting point for trekking and visits to the mountains of Timor-Leste. The stunning mountain town of Maubisse acts as a base for adventure tourism in this area, including trekking trips to climb Timor-Leste’s highest mountain, the sacred Mount Ramelau.

A successful tourism industry will contribute income to the national and local economies, create jobs, build businesses and improve regional economic imbalances.

The importance of the sector to Timor-Leste’s future will ensure that our infrastructure program prioritises projects such as upgrades to Dili and district airports, district seaports, roads and telecommunications.

Obstacles and Constraints

Back in 2001 the obstacles to tourism development were identified as:

  • Shortage of funds for promotion
  • Absence of market research
  • Perception of East Timor from reporting during 1999 may deter potential visitors

It should also be noted:

  • Another key challenge is the limited human resources available to service a growing tourist industry.  Over 70% of Timorese live in rural areas with limited access to information and means of communication.
  • Research indicates that poor levels of infrastructure,.
  • high costs of rental transport and limited availability of readily consumable information relating to travel within Timor-Leste, are aspects which are lacking in order to meet visitors’ needs.
  • Additionally, there exists limited access to cultural and historical sites within Timor Leste at present, and a lack of information about how to access sites.

Therefore this project will aim to provide a clear strategy plan for the Ministry of Tourism and tourism businesses to address the needs of travellers to Timor-Leste, and thus create an attractive environment within which the sector can flourish, building a destination image that will be attractive to the international market.

Research has also  led to conclusions that, because, at the moment, costs of tourist attractions and facilities as well as transport to the country are generally much higher than those experienced in many other similar destinations, Timor needs to offer something unique and special in order for travellers to wish to spend extra money.  Clearly the unspoilt beaches and the fact that there are so few other tourists around contribute to a unique selling point, but this still needs to be accessible, and the Maubere-Buibere Visitors Centre will play an important part in ensuring that these unique attractions are easily reachable, and that the quality of service throughout the visit is of a standard that will make the extra expense seem worthwhile.

Development Forecast for Tourism

In the Strategic Development Plan (SDP, 2011) the timeline for improvements was set out as the following

By 2015:

  • Critical tourist infrastructure will have been built or rehabilitated, including the Dili airport and regional airports and improved telecommunications infrastructure
  • Roads on key tourist routes, including the Great Northern Coast Road from Com to Balibo, and from Maliana through Ermera to Tibar, will have been rehabilitated and signposted
  • A tourism and hospitality training centre will have been established in Dili
  • Comprehensive tourist packages will have been developed for each of the Eastern, Central and Western Tourist Zones
  • A tourist promotion marketing strategy will have been promoting Timor-Leste internationally for several years, including an annual calendar of special events
  • Government will have been working with the private sector to develop tourism infrastructure that supports the key areas of eco-tourism and marine tourism, historic and cultural tourism, adventure and sports tourism, and conference and convention tourism
  • Tourist Information Centres will have been established in Dili, Lospalos and Baucau

By 2020:

  • Key tourism destinations will be operating with upgraded infrastructure, well established local activities and businesses, and promotional materials

By 2030:

  • imor-Leste will have a well-developed tourist industry attracting a large number of international visitors, contributing substantially to national and local community income and creating jobs throughout the nation


Many of the aims for 2015 have yet to be achieved; although there is a Tourist Information Point at Cristo Rei, it is very limited and only open at certain times, what the city needs is a larger multi-functional Visitor Centre, that will not only provide for the needs of tourists but can also act as an umbrella governing the whole spectrum of tourism offers, facilities and services in the capital Dili and beyond. By doing this the centre will be a starting point for addressing each of the other aims in the SDP for 2015 and beyond.

Current levels of Tourist activity

Tourist Arrivals in East Timor increased to 15778 in the second quarter of 2016 from 15260 in the first quarter of 2016. Tourist Arrivals in East Timor averaged 15254.00 from 2011 until 2016, reaching an all time high of 25923.00 in the third quarter of 2013 and a record low of 11554.00 in the second quarter of 2011


An international tourist marketing strategy has been considered to promote Timor-Leste as a preferred destination for travel. This will include ‘branding’ Timor-Leste as an unspoilt boutique tourist destination, along with implementing an integrated marketing, advertising and public relations strategy. Tourism marketing will evolve as the economy grows and Timor’s tourism industry matures. At first instance, closer tourist operator relationships will be forged with Australia, Portugal, Indonesia, China, Malaysia and Singapore before extending globally.

Pre arrival Information and purpose of visit

Prior to arrival, three out of four travelers (75%) relied on word-of-mouth recommendations to inform them ahead of their trip to Timor-Leste. This included half of respondents (51%) who found information about Timor-Leste from friends and/or family living in Timor-Leste, and 24% of respondents who sought information from work colleagues.

An important consideration then is how to get more information out to potential visitors, and this needs to be taken into account as an element to this proposal.  The Visitors’ Centre can provide a point not only for tourists when they arrive, but will be well-positioned to share information online and act as a central point for answering queries by phone or email.

Visitor Centre – Rationale and Planning

The main thrust of the proposal is the creation of a major centre for tourism in Dili, which will not only provide information and support for visitors but will become the hub of tourist activity in the area, integrating tourism offers and developing the already existing attractions. It will also create a brand and ensure that standards are maintained throughout tourism services.

The need for Tourist information in the centre of Dili

Nowadays travellers research their travel plans via a range of resources including the internet, television, magazines and newspapers and guidebooks. However, this information can often be too general because it is developed to cater to the widest possible audience. Also in the case of East Timor, where tourism is so new and developing, these media can quickly become out of date and inaccurate.

On arrival in Dili, visitors need local up-to-date information about the region’s attractions, events and services to ensure they have the best possible experience during their trip. At the same time local businesses, particularly micro- and small-to-medium enterprises, are forever looking for ways to promote their products and services directly to the consumer, and need to have direct access to this as they grow and establish themselves.

Therefore the Visitors’ Centre will fill the need for supporting visitors with their travel in a region, whilst at the same time supporting the local economy by providing local businesses with the opportunity to promote themselves directly to the consumer.

In addition the centre will offer local businesses – hotels, restaurants, car hire, transport and the attractions themselves – a platform for their services.  



  • The prime function of the Visitors Centre will be to welcome and inform visitors through the provision of relevant assistance and services.
  • To employ local people providing them with training in hospitality skills
  • To use local resources – not imports
  • To generate income to reduce operating costs.
  • To enhance visitor enjoyment and encourage repeat visits as well as good word-of-mouth from visitors having returned home
  • To liaise with and support local tourism providers
  • To gauge customer satisfaction with our service

Full report and full porposal for East Timor Visitor Center availabe on request …… 


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