When Timor-Leste gained its independence in 2002, it was called “the world’s newest country”. Since then, studies by visiting scientists have revealed that it also has the world’s greatest marine biodiversity, pristine coral reefs and a spectacular annual cetacean migration. In recent years, ocean adventurers looking for somewhere new to dive had started to turn their attention to Timor-Leste, but the country has yet to gain recognition as a mainstream dive destination. Indeed, few potential visitors were aware that the country existed.

This year, that was set to change. Dive operators had been participating in international travel expos and they were starting to see the results of their collective efforts to put Timor-Leste on the tourism map. Their reputation for high quality service gave dive tourists the confidence to consider Timor-Leste for their next expedition. Almost all of the operators had received glowing reviews from their previous customers. Expectations were high for the 2020 season, but all of the hard-won bookings were cancelled as international flights were suspended due to the COVID-19 crisis.

Dive operators in Timor-Leste are small, local businesses. Whilst they were instrumental in kick-starting the initial flow of tourists, they have had their challenges.  It had been difficult for them to promote Timor-Leste on a larger scale with their limited resources. They were also used to working individually, which limits scope for collective action for promotion or growth of the sector.

In 2018, Market Development Facility (MDF), with support from the Australian Government, brought the Timor-Leste dive community together to create the Dive Operators Working Group.  The group had already engaged in a destination marketing campaign which had started to deliver good results and had planned a range of activities aimed at developing the sector and protecting the marine environment.

Now, because of COVID-19, most of these activities have been put on hold as the tourism sector re-focuses its efforts on recovery.  For tourism operators in Timor-Leste, who were already facing many challenges, COVID-19 poses a serious threat. With that in mind, MDF has supported the production of a video to connect the Timor-Leste dive sector with the global diving community.  The video shares a compassionate message about the serious threat to the industry posed by COVID-19 while showcasing Timor-Leste’s unique assets with some breathtaking underwater footage. The operators want the world to know that they will stay positive through this crisis and will be enthusiastically waiting for the travelers to return: instead of being in despair, now it is ever more important to connect to the tourists and divers all over the world.

In the meantime, the Dive Operators Working Group is taking the time to reflect on the long-term goals of growing the industry. Various initiatives are in the pipeline: improving awareness about the need to protect Timor-Leste’s pristine marine life and advocacy to minimize the negative impact of construction projects on dive sites, along with the task of facilitating better relationship with government institutions relevant to conserving the marine life. The group was also planning a range of other activities in 2020, including hosting an international underwater photography competition to boost Timor-Leste’s visibility, capacity building for whale watching operations and further destination marketing efforts.

MDF is a multi-country initiative which promotes sustainable economic development, through higher incomes for women and men, in its partner countries. MDF connects individuals, businesses, governments and NGOs with each other, and with markets at home and abroad. This enhances investment and coordination and allows partnerships to flourish, strengthening inclusive economic growth.