In light of the global coronavirus pandemic and border closures, Timor-Leste is unexpectedly experiencing a bump in people sharing and searching for fresh local destinations under the Ha’u-Nia Timor-Leste domestic tourism promotion campaign. As people are becoming frustrated and bored, they’re looking through social media to see places that can reignite the spirit of travel, and for some – ignite it.

Through a question and answer format, Agora Food Studio takes a look at how the next generation of young tourism champions are unlocking each other’s potential. Agora Food Studio who has been working with a range of partners throughout 2020 using two interesting pedagogical practices: peer-to-peer coaching, and building connections and relationships through a “community of practice”.

Why is domestic tourism important?

Domestic tourism accounted for 73% of total Travel and Tourism spending globally in 2018, according to research by the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC). Domestic tourists cannot be ignored; clearly they are an important driver of the overall tourism sector. The activities of domestic tourists create economic importance as the money spent on domestic tourism feeds back into the country’s economy; creating a multiplier effect that can grow a more viable and prosperous economy.

COVID19 has been the single greatest disruption to the global tourism industry. All countries are facing the same threat to the survival of its tourism sector. With no international tourists, governments are pivoting towards boosting domestic tourism. Australia and New Zealand provide excellent examples of this.

Timor-Leste can also do this, but the potential of domestic tourism is too often ignored. Yet it exists and continues to grow quietly, organically. We’re also seeing increased posts of domestic travel adventure by a younger generation who are: camping enthusiasts, climbing Mount Ramelau to celebrate Loron Nain Feto Ramelau in October, hardcore motorbike explorers traveling the island, new yoga fans meditating on Atauro or Jaco island or among coffee forests in Letefoho, smartphone photographers partying on the remote beaches of Atekru, day-travelers to Laletek Nanis Domin for selfies over Dili, or to Atauro’s Beloi Saturday markets for beach ‘street-food’ lunch ending with a bag or two of fresh harvested seaweed to bring back for the family.

Since COVID hit, we had a lockdown in Timor-Leste from March 2020. Since then the government has instated States of Emergency on a month-by-month basis. How has it been for tourism and hospitality businesses? What changes did we have to make to survive?

It has been a tough year. People can see that more than a few businesses have closed their doors completely, some of whom have been institutions with an incredible legacy in Timor-Leste’s tourism sector.

We have had to change our own direction completely. When the economy almost stopped, we had to stop too. We had no income for three months, like a lot of other businesses of course. We were all scared about what would happen to the business and to our team. We were lucky to have an incredibly supportive landlord. We took the time to breathe, take stock and find ways to remain creative and motivated. Most of our team travelled back to their childhood homes. They took some inspiring photos and videos about their traditional food and stories. We shared with each other what meals we were cooking and eating at home and used this as the basis for solving our immediate business problem. We had to move swiftly to depend less on our a-la-carte service and more towards healthy catering and selling Timorese food and drink products through supermarkets, reflecting the community’s preference to eat more at home.

For all businesses, cashflow is everything. No cashflow equals no business. Without bridging income you can’t pay your bills and salaries. Tourism businesses can’t wait for international tourists to arrive in (we don’t know) how many years’ time. We have to focus on domestic tourism for now. We were able (with the support and understanding of USAID’s Tourism For All Project) to change our initial 2020 business plan They allowed us to see how we could support and up-skill our team and other small tourism businesses and entrepreneurs. We wanted to strengthen the relationships within our community. To work with the community of practice around us on becoming a COVID-resilient business.

The early period allowed us time to see opportunities; the latent energy in the young generation. Also, we saw that the world was moving online even more than before and this meant we could participate in digital coaching courses with people from different countries. Despite the internet challenges in Dili, three of our team took an international coaching course at first. We learnt how to learn, how to listen deeply, and how to coach the best out of others. The impact for them, and for the rest of the Agora team was immediate with one of our young leaders Paula Torres transition from coachee to coach in the area of digital marketing. (you can listen to her experience of learning about coaching here https://www.aidforaidworkers.com/podcast-124). We wanted to share coaching methods with others so they could benefit too.

We started looking ahead towards peer-to-peer coaching. We focused on emerging leaders within the tourism sector who are capable of self-reflecting, keen to learn more, and most importantly open to sharing their professional experiences and knowledge. In addition to Paula, we started working with Turizmu Ba Ema Hotu Tourism Champions award winners  Elfan Dacosva (Timor Fixer) and Anas Madeira (Timor Motorbike Rentals and Tours, Timor Unearthed).

 What is a coaching approach and why is it important in the tourism sector?

 Coaching is all about listening. We have to learn first what other people want, what worries them and how they want to achieve their goals. As coaches we can only ask questions that guide a person to better understand who they are, to develop their ability to sense and respond to changing circumstances, in order to achieve what they want. So we asked many questions.

One of the most important questions we asked each other was “if you were a tourist in Timor-Leste, what would you want to experience?”

What did you learn about domestic tourism through the coaching?

1) Domestic tourism exists and it has been growing organically over the last few years. It is being made more visible and stronger through the #hauniatimorleste campaign.

2) A dynamic digitally-savvy younger generation of Timorese are more keen than ever to visit different destinations within their own country. Through coaching we have realised many young Timorese are in the early stages of being a tourist. Let us harness this energy, bring them together through the ‘community of practice’ that already exists to share what they love about their favorite tourism destinations and why, and how to promote it to their friends and friends. An example of how to build a community of practice is to normalize exchanges between different tourism businesses, for example bringing guesthouse cooks to Dili to understand what it is like to be a tourist, and transfer this experience to providing for tourist needs back in home villages.

“This really one of important learning for young generation like us for our future business. Because though sharing story and used social media the world will know our business. If it possible keep continue with this activity to help to promote Timorese Tourism” – Paula Torres.

3) Framing is key. The most profound realization was that all of us can be tourists. “Everybody was shocked to hear that we can be tourists. We thought that tourists are only foreigners. But we now know about domestic tourism. That as young generation, we need to know our own country and promote what we love – this is the best starting point for growing tourism” – Paula Torres.

Because of language, the framing has been that tourists = foreigner. Agora is working hard with these tourism champions to change this. We can all be tourists and contribute to building a key element of the local economy.

“The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land;
it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.”

― G.K. Chesterton

What did we learn about ourselves through the coaching?

“I have learned about how to be more organised and how to prepare (making plan A and plan B for example); how to be active, to listen, have fun and consider one another and co-ordinate with team and participants, take note of interesting ideas and questions from participants” — Paula Torres

“I learned that each coaching interaction cannot be replicated – every coaching session must be curated and created from scratch – duplication does not work and therefore I am learning the art of bringing uniqueness to each session” — Maeve O’Brien

What are some novel techniques we are using to build a tourism “community of practice” and why?

A community of practice is a “group of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do, and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.” This definition reflects the fundamentally social nature of human learning.

Sparking Joythe process of learning needs to spark creative joy because this is when genuine knowledge transmission takes place. The connections between the learners and the different ideas become cemented. This is why we feel the “community of practice” approach works. It is about learning together with other people passionate about doing tourism. During a Digital Marketing Exchange held in September while the content was focused on participants telling their own stories of purveyors of quality tourism products and services, the focus of the Exchange was having fun, being curious and acknowledging that only by making mistakes can you take better photographs or do better Facebook posts for example. For these realisations to occur, we cannot have teachers teaching and students sitting down passively all day pretending to listen. Rather we have as many facilitators as possible creating spaces for people to share their stories, both as tourism workers and also as tourists (as mentioned above, some participants only just realized that they were also tourists). After just one day of the digital marketing exchange, tourism industry participants were able to take more compelling smart-phone photos for social media.

Choreographing collaboration – we look for opportunities to bring people together and learn about each others’ businesses. These interactions can be a window from which potential future collaborations may (or may not) can be seen. For example, during the process of developing video content for tourism and hospitality businesses to be COVID-safe, we brought together young Timorese from four organisations – Timor Lodge, Linivon Restaurant, Timor Fixer and Agora Food Studio, together with the filmmakers Pixelasia. They not only starred in the videos themselves but they contributed to the videos’ scripts and got to know each other and their businesses better over the course of a day’s filming.

On the set of one of the videos produced to share information about food hygiene and measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 (Photo: Ann Turner/USAID’s Tourism For All Project)

Eating and drinking coffee together – sitting down over a good shared meal with a Timorese flavour, also helps to bind this community. As we have all experienced, eating together can be a pleasurable diversion from the serious learning and business issues of the day. It is important here to make sure that the food is presented on shared plates and that people are seated together facing each other and not hiding on the side of the room talking to the people they already know. We make small changes to the atmosphere like upbeat music, colourful décor and cheery service staff to lighten the mood and make the guests feel fully welcome. Then you have a safe space for people to share their life stories with each other. If the food and coffee we serve during ‘trainings’ and ‘workshops’ are not good, then we can’t expect the conversation to be much better.

What has given you the most joy from these activities and why?

“I meet different people from different places like Centro Sover-Botir Matak, Timor Lodge Resort, Hato-Builiko Guesthouse and Timor Adventures. I can practice more listening and learn from them as well. They really want to learn and it’s a really new thing for some of them, but we got feedback from them most of them are excited to be part of this. I feel thankful to have coaching with Mana Maeve about being a facilitator, because she really understands, is open minded, professional and she guides me as a facilitator; to people have to be step-by-step and make sure they understand. She has many techniques to use I think really help me. I really feel comfortable coaching with her and I also learnt a lot about Facebook posting with her.” — Paula Torres, Agora Food Studio

 “My interaction with Paula has been the best part of the coaching and has given me the most joy. Paula is a natural coach and teacher. It was a pleasure to work with her and witness her appetite for learning and her ability to apply tips and techniques she acquired during our sessions. Not only did she pick up these tips easily she cleverly adapted them to bring out the best in her coaching classes with her students” — Coach Maeve O’Brien, Mascontour

What have you learnt about others during the coaching?

“They like to work in groups, they need to have fun, they don’t want only one person to talk until the class is finished, and they also want to contribute themselves to the knowledge in the room” — Paula Torres, Agora Food Studio.

“Not to force them into the coaching sessions and to let go if they really do not see the benefit. They enjoy the level playing field and need to be reminded often that I am not a teacher” — Coach Maeve O’Brien, Mascontour.

“Normally people want somebody else to fix their problems but they don’t realise that it is better for them to seek a coach with experience, who can help them to resolve the problem for themselves. During the coaching course I learned that it is not always good just to help people, without given them the opportunity for them to help themselves first.” – Elfan Dacosta, Timor Fixer

Source: Questions and answers were provided by Agora Food Studio’s Mark Peter Notaras and Paula Torres, Mascontour’s Maeve O’Brien and Timor Fixer’s Elfan Dacosva.