Postcard from Ataúro Island, Timor Leste - improving livelihoods through pro-poor, community-based ecotourism


Postcard from Ataúro Island, Timor Leste - improving livelihoods through pro-poor, community-based ecotourism

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By Jose Quintas and Karen Edyvane

Beloi beach, popular snorkelling location. (Photo credit to Ian Lloyd Neubauer @

Sitting in the deep waters of the Ombai Strait, the small island of Ataúro off the north coast of Timor Leste (and visible from Dili), is fringed with pristine beaches, clear blue waters, coral reefs, thatched-roofed fishing villages, spectacular mountains and remote, villages pursuing rich, cultural traditions.  These attractions have made Ataúro Island one of the top ecotourism and adventure tourism destinations in Timor Leste. 

With the first community-based ecotourism (CBET) development in Timor Leste (the Tua Koin Eco-village in 2002), Ataúro Island is also recognised as the birthplace of ecotourism development - and a national and international model of CBET development.  However, little is known of the actual impact, benefits and sustainability of CBET on Ataúro Island (or Timor Leste).  Equally importantly, until now, no work has been done on how future CBET can be planned and developed sustainably and foster local livelihoods and community benefits.  Ataúro Island with its long history of CBET, both successes and failures, provides a major opportunity to understand the complex, natural, social, economic and cultural factors at play in community livelihood development in Timor Leste – and how best to plan for future, sustainable ecotourism development.

Adara, popular SCUBA diving location.

To this end, Charles Darwin University masters student, and Timorese national, Jose Quintas has spent the past 2 years undertaking the first comprehensive baseline study and assessment of CBET on Ataúro Island.  This included assessing the impacts and benefits of CBET on local communities; exploring the ‘success factors’ behind sustainable ventures; and identifying ecotourism activities, priorities, planning and governance models to underpin future CBET enterprises.  Island-level, participatory spatial mapping with local communities, was used to identify ecotourism values and ‘assets’ (natural, cultural and historical) and key tourism infrastructure.  In addition to local knowledge, knowledge from other key stakeholders (ie. diving companies, trekking and tour companies) was also critical in the mapping of ecotourism assets. Communities in 3 districts (Vila Maumeta, Beloi and Bikeli) were surveyed to gauge their opinions of existing CBET enterprises (ie. impacts, benefits, sustainability) and also to identify potential future CBET development (ie. specific activities, planning approach, governance model).  Jose also undertook a socio-economic analysis of CBET enterprises and detailed case studies of individual ‘failed’ and ‘successful’ CBET enterprises.

Safe, sheltered beaches and reefs, ideal for water-based activities.

Overall, the results confirm the success and overwhelming community support for CBET on Ataúro Island - with 94-98% of the community respondents (from all 3 villages) reporting that CBET was important for their local economy, and 88-96% strongly supporting further CBET development, rather than ‘mass tourism’. The results also confirmed Ataúro Island’s wealth of potential natural, cultural, and historical ecotourism assets that could be further developed through CBET development.  These include coastal-marine tourism (ie. safe swimming beaches, scuba diving, coral reef snorkelling, and marine wildlife watching), mountain tourism (trekking, hiking, terrestrial flora and fauna), and cultural tourism (ie. handicrafts, festivals, sacred sites, historical sites, religious sites). Significantly, mapping of these key features, such as nature trails and sites of cultural and ecological significance (such as dive sites, turtle nesting, dolphin and whale watching), will be essential in not only tourism planning, but also, future Marine Park planning. Jose also demonstrated that CBET has had significant economic benefits to local communities through job creation, increasing the value of local labour, materials for construction, markets for local products, additional income and increased revenue from local transportation. Socio-culturally, CBET has also promoted and strengthened local culture through supporting Ataúrian traditional handicrafts, traditional singing groups and traditional massage. Environmentally, CBET enterprises have had low or minimal impacts (ie. litter, pollution, erosion, damage coral reefs) and further, have contributed significantly to sustainable tourism development through the use of eco-friendly waste management and applying a ‘reef tax’ to assist marine conservation.

Whales and large pods of dolphins are commonly spotted off Atauro and in the deep waters of the Ombai Strait.

However, infrastructure, human resources, land tenure issues, and financial limitations remain major impediments to further CBET development on the island.  Vila Maumeta (supported by its infrastructure) is a major focal point for CBET on Ataúro Island, with the highest number of CBET activities, across all types of CBET.  As such, the benefits of CBET are not equitably spread across the island.  Further, there are emerging significant socio-cultural impacts of CBET on local communities - particularly foreign tourists wearing inappropriate swimwear.

Guesthouses and village accommodation provide a key source of local income.

A major insight from this research has been the importance of involving communities in the planning and management of CBET.  On Ataúro Island, CBET has mostly been initiated by local communities, assisted by local NGOs – with little or no support from national government or international NGOs.  Further, ‘bottom-up’ approaches to CBET development (as exemplified by Tua Koin eco-village) provided greater benefits to local communities (especially income and employment).  While customary laws were also viewed as a potential tool for managing the local impacts of CBET, local communities are seeking more laws and greater regulation, and also financial and training support from government and the private sector. 

The research was conducted under the auspices of the IADE-ILO funded, Ataúro Tourism Group, with the full support of the Ministry of Tourism, and will provide a key input into future ecotourism planning on the island. 

Beachside, eco-lodge accommodation use eco-friendly waste disposal and source local labour, building materials, food, products and hire local staff.


Local communities identifying and mapping key ecotourism values.


Jose Quintas submitting his Masters thesis, with Principal Supervisor, Karen Edyvane.