Turizmu Ba Ema Hotu Tourism Champions: Spotlight

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Tourism For All Project celebrated World Tourism Day 2021 with the second annual Turizmu Ba Ema Hotu Tourism Champions awards. Thirteen companies, individuals and organizations were recognized for their exceptional contribution to tourism and to society, in what has been an exceptionally challenging year for the industry. This year, there were three awards categories, reflecting the particular challenges the sector has faced in Timor-Leste: Tourism Champions, Solidarity Champions USAID’s and Climate Champions.

Four of the winners have shared the stories behind the awards: Ego Lemos, Robert Crean, Adino Boavida and Pro Ema.

For more information and a full list of winners, click here: (https://www.timorleste.tl/usaid-celebrates-world-tourism…/ ).

Ego Lemos, Climate Champion:  Music with a message

Photo c. USAID’s Tourism For All Project/Ann Turner

Music fans in Timor-Leste and overseas know Ego Lemos as a singer-songwriter. His song “Balibo” featured in the 2009 film of the same name (insert link http://www.balibo.com.au/) and he won two industry awards for it.  But the Tourism Climate Champion award recognises his continuing work as an environmental activist. Through his organization Permatil, he has been leading and empowering local people to restore the natural environment through community-driven projects. His grassroots initiatives have established more than 250 school gardens, implemented over 100 water-source rehabilitation and conservation projects, and equipped more than 41,000 school children with the knowledge to sustain the environment for future generations.

Timor-Leste is vulnerable to two extremes of climate change: drought and floods. “I have witnessed that many of the natural springs sometimes dry up completely and the local people have to walk for a long distance searching for water, especially women and children, and climate change has an impact on food production as well. So it’s changing a lot. And when the rains come, it’s heavier than before. So for my organisation Permatil we have to act as quickly as possible to raise awareness and train more people into taking action”.

Since 2008, more than 5,000 young people have attended Permatil youth camps, where Lemos and his team spread the conservation message through practical land and water management workshops and music.  This year, there was a greater sense of urgency, as Timor-Leste suffered catastrophic floods and landslides in April, killing more than 40 people.  Lemos performed his song, “Haburas Rai” (Greening the Land) (insert link) https://youtu.be/KCUtSTB6RqY, a call for people to stop felling trees and lighting grass fires, both of which cause soil erosion and increase the threat of landslides.

Lemos’ vision for the future of tourism in Timor-Leste is firmly centred in conservation. Speaking from the site of a permanent youth camp he is establishing in the hills above Dili,: “From my point of view, I think rather than building a big hotel in the middle of nowhere, the middle of beautiful nature, I think is best to support local community guesthouses and promote the local cuisine. And I think it’s a better way to establish tourism cooperatives, so that the company or the business can contribute in two ways: benefiting the tourism industry but also benefiting the local economy without destroying the environment and local culture.”

Lemos said that he was surprised to learn that he had won a Climate Champion award: “It’s an honour, to receive the recognition,” he said, “but I don’t want to just receive the award, and then that’s it, stop working. I have to work again and more. Yeah, I have to do it more”.

Rob Crean, Tourism Champion: Commitment and Investment
Photo c. USAID’s Tourism For All Project/ Ann Turner & Compass Diving 

One of the very first foreign investors in Timor-Leste, Robert Crean set up SVSC, a vehicle maintenance business, in 1999. The country was in ruins following the country’s violent transition to independence after 25 years of Indonesian rule. Tens of thousands of development and humanitarian workers had streamed into Dili to help rebuild the world’s newest country, and SVSC was tasked with keeping their cars on the road. He soon diversified into marine transport, operating a water taxi to Atauro island, which was isolated, with just one weekly ferry service.

“When I first saw Atauro, it was just an amazing place. There were mountains on one side and the ocean on the other and there are not many places in the world you get both,” Crean said. He soon moved into marine tourism, opening Compass Diving and building a resort within the community of Adara.  His company now employs more than 30 people, of whom 80% are Timorese.

Compass Diving instructor Cassio Schumacher has been been conducting field courses in sustainable tourism and conservation for Timorese marine science students from the National University, a project funded through a grant from USAID’s Tourism For All Project. “So we’re showing them what tourism can do to protect the reefs, to protect the environment, to protect the mountains and all the flora and fauna and working to increase tourism so that people can actually see it untouched and in a natural state.” Crean said, “The kids love it. They absolutely love it. When they get off the boat they really don’t want to go home. We show them whales and dolphins and things that they’ve never seen in their lifetime. We’re training them to recognize the different species and the different types of coral”.

Just as Atauro island was attracting international attention as a global hotspot for whalewatching and scuba diving, the Coronavirus pandemic broke out and tourism ground to a halt. Crean had started improving the facilities at Adara resort and had begun construction on a luxury guest bungalow. “All the plans and things that we had coming, it’s all just gone by the wayside. But it’s still there, we still have the land, we still have the sea, we still have the coral reef, we still have the backing of the people of Atauro,” he said. The Tourism Champion Award has boosted his resolve to stay the course: “It is a struggle but that makes it worthwhile. It means something to be recognized for the fact that we are still working towards developing local and international tourism in Timor-Leste”.

Jeremias “Adino” Boavida, Head Waiter at Caz Bar, Tourism Champion: The Power of One

Photo c. USAID’s Tourism For All Project/Ann  Turner

Ten years ago, Jeremias “Adino” Boavida was working as a security guard. His life changed when he presented himself at the popular Dili beachfront restaurant, the Caz Bar, to ask for a part time job. Caz Bar owner Carron Dutch remembers, “He ended up coming on full time. Because he liked it. And we liked him. And it all worked out. He was always happy and obliging and helping customers”. Boavida – now head waiter – was nominated for a Tourism Champions award by one of those happy customers, who wrote: “Over the many years that he has worked there, I have not seen a day that he has not given his best. Every Caz Bar customer knows him very well for his professionalism, and friendly and spiritual attitude. I have not met a better Timorese worker in the tourism sector.”

He had no formal training in tourism but picked up his skills on the job. Boavida rarely forgets a name, has a good memory for customers’ favorite drinks and dishes and is keen to share tourism information with them.  He has taught himself basic greetings in English, Japanese, French, Italian and Mandarin.

Boavida is keen to do whatever he can to help the industry develop in his country: “I was very happy when I found out I had won an award,” he said, “And I’d like to take this opportunity to ask the government to take a look at the beaches around Dili and to plant more trees so that the tourists can sit in the shade. I would also like to ask young people not to drop litter, just put it in the bin. We need to work together to attract more visitors to Timor-Leste.”

Now that international tourism has stopped due to COVID, Boavida is working to make Timorese visitors feel welcome: “They come here from the mountains to spend time at the beach,” he explained, “Some Timorese people don’t know about French fries and pizza and I encourage them to try new things. They enjoy it and then they come back. I cut them a nice, cold coconut and they watch the sunset.”

There is a legend in Timor-Leste that once you drink the coconut milk, you are destined to return. Boavida hopes that is true for his past customers and looks forward to seeing them again when international travel resumes: “Normally my friends are coming from England, from Australia, from America. I can’t wait to say to them, maybe next year, ‘Welcome back! Good to see you again! Long time, no see!”.

Pro Ema Training Restaurant, Solidarity Champion: Culinary Excellence, Served with Compassion

Photo c. USAID’s Tourism For All Project/Ann Turner 

As a social enterprise offering training, employment and economic independence to vulnerable young Timorese women, it could be said that solidarity is Pro Ema’s business model. In 2018, Pro Ema Director Simone Assis brought in top chefs to train the staff and the flagship restaurant is considered to be one of the best in Dili. Since then, the organization has expanded: there are now three restaurants, a salon and artisan chocolate and ice cream factories. Pro Ema supports more than 40 women, some of whom are survivors of sexual violence and have been living in shelters for security reasons.

When Timor-Leste was hit by catastrophic floods on April 4th, scores of people were killed and thousands displaced to evacuation camps. Pro Ema immediately responded with a massive relief effort. Through its “Together We Are Stronger” campaign, they raised more than $30,000 in relief funds, cooked and distributed more than 30,000 meals to flood victims in evacuation camps, along with more than 20,000 kilograms of raw rice and 850 basic needs packages, including items such as groceries, bedding, kitchen utensils and face masks. After the initial impact of the floods, it took days for the water to subside, and some roads were blocked by landslides or completely destroyed. The Pro Ema team had to navigate perilous conditions as they travelled around the capital collecting and delivering donations.

Pro Ema Deputy Director Ana Paulina da Costa remembers the day the team first entered the camps: “It was a big shock. There were many people who had lost their homes and all of their possessions. I felt so sad. And it wasn’t a safe place for them, or us, because of the pandemic. We knew that we had to keep our distance but they had to sleep close to each other in crowded conditions – it was also risky for the women – but they had no choice. We did what we could to help.”  With thousands of hungry people to be fed, the Pro Ema team put their cooking skills to good use, setting up field kitchens to prepare nutritious meals for all.

When Pro Ema was announced as a Solidarity Champion, Assis was swift to react: “This is award is not just for Pro Ema. It belongs to everyone who joined hands to help, alongside our whole team, who worked day in, day out for six months to support the flood victims.  Our motto is “Together We Are Stronger”. We couldn’t have done it alone”.

Author: USAID’s Tourism For All Project/Ann Turner