East Timor (Timor Leste)

East Timor is a unique ‘end of the line’ destination for those adventuring in Southeast Asia. At the end of the Nusa Tenggara Archipelago of Indonesia, only recently independent in 2002, this country has a number of appealing qualities for tourists. Its pristine beaches, reefs and marine life will appeal to all from the lazy beachcomber to the avid scuba diver.

East Timor was under Portuguese colonial rule from the 18th century until 1975, giving life a distinct flavour and setting it apart from neighbouring islands. It is, for example, one of only two predominantly Catholic countries in Asia, the other one being the Philippines. The hard-fought resistance against the subsequent military occupation by Indonesia, as well as the scorched-earth campaign before Indonesia’s departure in 1999 have left their marks on the country. At least 100,000 Timorese died as a result of the 24 years of Indonesian occupation. The richness of Timorese traditions and material culture, proudly maintained by a largely rural population, is a testament to the resilience of the Timorese people.

Timor is the Malay word for “east.” East Timor, also known as Timor-Leste, officially the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste has a land area of 15,000 sq km and shares a land boarder with the Indonesian island of Timor. East Timor has a population of 1.3 million people and lies between the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. East Timor is a mountainous nation, the highest point being Mount Tatamailau at 2,963 m. The local climate is tropical and generally hot and humid, characterized by distinct rainy and dry seasons.

The continued United Nations presence in East Timor means that the capital, Dili, offers Western creature comforts and food for all tastes; yet prices are, consequently, less competitive with neighbouring Indonesia. A handful of quality dive shops and ecotourism operators are carving out a niche from the capital as well.

Outside Dili, the tourist infrastructure is more limited, with a couple of higher priced originally Portuguese pousadas (guest houses), as well as some more basic ones too. Small-scale community-based tourism projects have sprung up along the beaches and in some scenic mountain locations. Highlights for budget tourists are beach houses in Baucau and Kom, as well as on the tip of the island, Tutuala, which is now part of Konis Santana National Park, the country’s first such park.

Timor had just begun to reap the rewards for positive press coverage and attention from the world’s best-selling guidebooks when social unrest hit in 2006. Because of the growing pains of independence, there has been slow consolidation of the nation state and consequent violence. Between 2006 and 2012 Australian soldiers were based in East Timor on a ‘stabalisation mission’ along with many UN peacekeepers. In 2012 both the UN peacekeeping mission and Australian troops ended their stay in East Timor; signs of improved political stability. In 2012 there were 58,000 international tourist arrivals to East Timor.