Timor Leste is knocking at the door of ASEAN to become the 11th member of the Association. Independent since 2002, the small country shares only borders with Indonesia. What could its potential integration into ASEAN change for the region’s tourism?
Timor Leste has been looking to become ASEAN newest member. Independent from Indonesia since 2002, the small country made an official demand back to 2011 with an eye on its accession to membership planned originally for 2015. However as the year is now coming to a close and all ASEAN forces bundled in a bid to turn the coming ASEAN Economic Community into a true success. AEC probably has been a deterrent factor to a quickler integration of Timor Leste.
The integration of Timor Leste into ASEAN would of course bring numerous economic benefits to the emerging nation which could benefit from a market of 620 million inhabitants.
Political stability his now more firmly assured while the country is recording an annual GDP growth of 6.5%. Timor economy output is estimated at US$1.57 billion but is highly dependent of petroleum, which according to the World Bank represents 99% of Timor-Leste’s export earnings, and 80% of its GDP. The World Bank, is now working to develop Timor agriculture and tourism sectors
Looking indeed at tourism, Timor Leste remains a “terra incognita” (unknown destination) for most travellers. In 2014, the country welcomed less than 60,000 foreign visitors, down from 2013 by 23.8%. However according to numbers for the first half of 2015, foreign visitors arrivals at Dili International Airport are up by 6.8%.
According to a visitors survey conducted in 2014 by the Asia Foundation to identify travel patterns for Timor Leste, More than half of respondents (56%) travelled to Timor-Leste for work, meetings or business-related activities. From that percentage, 15% travelled for business and 7% travelled for MICE purposes. Only 17% traveled to Timor-Leste purely for holiday purposes and 16% came for VFR purposes (Visit Friends and Relatives).
Boosting tourism-especially in partnership with Indonesia- will first request to strengthen Timor Leste access. Dili Airport, the only international air gateway to the country is only linked to three destinations, Darwin, Denpasar (Bali) and Singapore, offering a total capacity of around 10,000 seats per month. Latest to add Dili to its network is Citilik, the low cost subsidiary of Garuda Indonesia, which offers three weekly flights out of Bali. Deficient transport infrastructure translates into relatively high travel costs for visitors compared to neighbouring Indonesia.
Other difficulties for Timor Leste is the lack of an international hotel chain -which would ensure international visibility to the destination-as well as a tiny marketing budget for promotion, estimated around US$7.4 million in 2014.
So far, financial help to promote the destination has been done by Australia but particularly by Portugal and by Macau. This translated into the setting of a website, the printing of maps and brochures as well as the listing and classification of Timor Leste accommodation.
Timor Leste has lots to offer for seaside and diving, culture and history. According to the Visitors Survey of the Asia Foundation, the country’s appeal remains limited through unmet traveler needs include poor levels of infrastructure, high costs of rental transport and limited availability of readily consumable information relating to travel within Timor-Leste.
“In light of traveller’s desires to visit cultural and historic sites, there exists limited access to sites, and information about how to access sites. The findings provide an evidence base upon which the Ministry of Tourism can develop future policies that address the needs of travelers to Timor-Leste, and thus create an attractive environment within which the sector can flourish”, concludes the report.
Cooperation with neighbour, especially with the creation of common packages would also help boosting Timor Leste interest. But there is probably little interest from ASEAN member countries for now as long as Timor Leste stays outside ASEAN Community.