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A Flight Path to Recovery for Tourism in Timor-Leste

October 28, 2020

By Gobie Rajalingam and Paul Hooper

Situated on the southeastern periphery of Southeast Asia and endowed with unspoiled and exquisite natural attractions, Timor-Leste is a magnet for adventuresome tourists. Leisure travelers injected roughly 23.2 million much-needed dollars into the country’s economy in 2019, and success in capturing a larger share of Southeast Asia’s robust tourism market would make a significant contribution to the nation’s development.

Timor-Leste is situated on the southeastern periphery of Southeast Asia. (Image: Rei-artur / CC BY-SA)

Tourism is relatively labor intensive, and with the right mix of products, services, and supporting infrastructure it could bring widespread economic benefits and create jobs for a burgeoning youth population. The National Tourism Policy has a stated goal of 200,000 tourist visits per year by 2030, which would energize the petroleum-dependent economy, but the harsh reality is that costly airfares, poor connectivity, and inadequate airports have kept this goal out of reach.

With the emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic, aviation operations have now been reduced to relief flights to repatriate citizens, emergency medical flights, and deliveries of urgently needed medical supplies. The resulting financial impact throughout the aviation industry has been severe.

Healthy airlines are particularly dependent on reliable cash flow. The International Civil Aviation Organization estimates that the world’s airlines have lost 213 to 257 billion dollars in income since the beginning of the crisis. The general picture is that some airlines have already gone out of business, while others are being restructured or just holding on by a thread. Staff have been laid off, fleets have been pruned, aircraft orders have been canceled, and less profitable routes are being eliminated.

The airlines that emerge from the global crisis will be smaller and will be focused on survival in a weak market environment, and this, of course, includes operators that directly or indirectly serve Timor-Leste. Timor-Leste is a small market on the periphery of the networks of foreign airlines, and if it is to win a place when air service is restored, it must show operators an attractive value proposition that fits with their scaled-back plans.

Timor-Leste’s natural beauty should be a magnet for tourists and a much-needed boost to the economy, but costly airfares, inadequate airports, and Covid-19 have kept this goal out of reach.

A forthcoming analysis by The Asia Foundation, Covid-19 and the Alignment of Timor-Leste’s Aviation and Tourism Strategies, argues that Timor-Leste must seek bilateral or regional travel agreements with like-minded countries that have achieved similar success in controlling the virus and have the capability to manage future outbreaks. With just 30 recorded cases, Timor-Leste is among the most successful countries in dealing with the pandemic, positioning it to offer itself as a partner in a “travel bubble.” Australia, for example, is a low-risk country that accounted for almost 48 percent of inbound travelers to Timor-Leste in 2019. The business communities in Australia and New Zealand have been working with airlines and aviation authorities to reopen travel between the two countries as part of a “Pacific travel bubble” that could be extended to other Pacific island nations. The Cook Islands and Fiji have been monitoring the progress of this Pacific travel bubble, and Timor-Leste would do well to start making preparations for such an arrangement.

These preparations fall under three headings:

Establish conditions that give foreign travelers confidence that Timor-Leste poses a negligible or at least manageable risk of spreading Covid-19. These conditions include eliminating community transmission of Covid-19 and confirming this with systematic testing, building a system for contact tracing to manage fresh outbreaks or reintroduction of the virus by arriving passengers, and preparing the public health system to mount a robust response to serious cases of infection.

Introduce public health measures at Lobato International Airport that reflect recognized best practices for Covid-safe travel. The International Air Transport Association and the World Health Organization have developed detailed guidance for Covid-safe travel. The International Civil Aviation Organization is urging its members to revise procedures and embrace new technology to keep person-to-person contact to a minimum and to simplify the travel process. Online check-in and automated bag drop, for example, which minimize traveler contact with airline clerks, are simple procedures that are becoming the norm in modern airports.

Promote Timor-Leste as a profitable destination for airlines in a fragile and disrupted commercial environment. Upgrades to Lobato International Airport are still urgently needed. The existing passenger terminal was built in the 1980s for domestic service and has been imperfectly adapted for international use. The asphalt runway, at 1,850 meters, can accommodate aircraft the size of an Airbus A320, but only with restricted loads, hurting airline profits. Though it was renovated in 2011, there is still work to be done on the runway and other airport facilities.

Success in capturing a larger share of Southeast Asia’s robust tourism market would make a significant contribution to Timor-Leste’s development.

Timor-Leste has national policies on both tourism and aviation. For air service to resume, these policies must be aligned with international standards determined by global industry bodies. These structural and policy measures must be prioritized by the government and enforced at Lobato International Airport. By adopting these measures, Timor-Leste will equip itself to commence bilateral and regional negotiations with other countries that have controlled the spread of the virus, and to begin safely growing its aviation and tourism sectors.

Read the new report Covid-19 and the Alignment of Timor-Leste’s Aviation and Tourism Strategies.

Gobie Rajalingam is a team leader for The Asia Foundation’s Tourism Development Program in Timor-Leste. He can be reached at [email protected]. Paul Hooper is a civil aviation consultant. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related locations: Timor-Leste

1 Comment

  1. This is a interesting analysis. Not many people are aware of how successful Timor Leste has been in controlling Covid-19. Given the pent-up demand for travel by Australians, the creation of an Australian – Timor Leste travel bubble would undoubtedly result in many Australians visiting Timor Leste who would not have otherwise considered the country as a Southeast Asian destination. That would have long term benefits for the tourism industry in Timor Leste as it would no doubt result in promotion of the country through word-of-mouth by returning visitors to an eager travel-starved audience in Australia.

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