Community-Based Tourism: Lessons from Timor-Leste

With a global pause in the industry over the past year, Solimar revisied many of our former community-based tourism projects to compile lessons learned from our own work across the globe, in projects both past and present.

The emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic and the ongoing climate change crisis has prompted tourist destinations around the globe to re-examine their practices and question the notion of what “sustainable tourism” truly means. Once seen as a foundational framework for approaching tourism, this industry reset has led to the reimagination of community-based tourism.

Community-based tourism (CBT) is characterized by collective participation and decision-making by all stakeholders in a destination, from government officials to citizens, developers and planners (Haywood 1988). As any tourism practitioner can relate to, this is easier said than done. A complex range of factors must be considered when developing and planning tourism development to allow CBT enterprises to thrive.

Previous Solimar projects have used CBT practices to engage citizens in tourism development and share in the growth of local tourism-based economies.

In Jamaica, Solimar worked with the Jamaica Social Investment Fund, a self-organized coalition of community members in tourism, to promote their products and services. 

Jamaica Community Tourism
(Jamaica Community Experiences)

In Colombia, Solimar worked to build the capacity of similar tourist groups surrounding Utría National Park. Tourism industry workers in Chocó, Colombia use this training to work for the conservation of the area’s natural biodiversity. 

Colombia Community Tourism
National Parks of Colombia

These projects demonstrate how the value of CBT practices extends beyond the destination community. Prioritizing the contributions and participation of all members of a community is not only a foundational principle in destination management, it is also an important aspect of visitor experiences. Travelers are eager to take part in a diverse array of cultural, natural, and culinary experiences, and are increasingly interested in using their travel to give back to the destinations where these experiences are based. From staying with local communities to increasing expectations for all-inclusive resorts, travelers are more eager than ever to engage with cultural heritage, environmental conservation, and community-based tourism initiatives…and the travel industry is taking note.

Ataúro Island, Timor-Leste 

The Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste (commonly referred to as East Timor), situated on the Southeastern border of Indonesia between the Timor and Savu Seas, is an emerging tourism destination in Southeast Asia with rich history, cultural legacies, and nature areas – both above and below the ocean. Colonized by the Portuguese in the 16th century, Timor-Leste briefly gained independence in 1975 before being invaded and brutally ruled by Indonesian forces until 1999. Hundreds of thousands of Timorese perished under Indonesian occupation, with occupying forces destroying some 80% of the country’s infrastructure when forced to retreat following its United Nations-sponsored act of self-determination in 1999. As a result, Timor-Leste is one of the most impoverished countries in Southeast Asia, with a lack of available economic opportunities despite its immense natural resource base. 

Timor Leste Community Tourism

Under the efforts of the USAID Tourism for All Project, Solimar began working with local communities of Atauro Island in 2019 to develop a strategic plan for tourism development in the region, with the hopes of creating more economic opportunities for local communities. Located 25 km to the north of Timor-Leste, Ataúro is a rarely-visited destination home to six sucos (or villages), the ancient and culturally significant Manucoco Peak, and over 300 species of fish. Situated in the Coral Triangle, an area with the highest biodiversity of any marine environment in the world, Ataúro is a diver’s paradise: from deep reef walls on the West coast to kaleidoscopic coral pinnacles on the East, hundreds of creatures swim through the waters year round, including several endangered species of whales and dolphins that use the waters as migratory corridors during winter months. 

Community Tourism in Atauro Island
The incredible biodiversity of Atauro’s coral reefs

Through visioning, listening and planning exercises with local stakeholders and tourism advocates, Solimar helped to establish a Destination Management Organization (DMO) for the island in 2019, known as ATKOMA. By leading tourism development initiatives on the island, the Asosiasaun Turizmu Koleku Mahanak Atauro (ATKOMA) helps to ensure that tourism directly supports the community, and that its development includes the voices and vision of local people. From training local tour guides to selling day tours and multi-day itineraries exploring the most remote corners of the island, ATKOMA is the captain that steers the tourism ship in the direction that the community wishes to sail. With local leaders, forums for engagement, and membership programs with private-sector businesses, DMOs like ATKOMA are the focal point to achieving sustainable community-based tourism development in destinations all over the world. 

DMOs and Community-Based Tourism: Lessons from Timor-Leste

In reimagining community-based tourism development, Solimar International is doing more than ever to provide the resources and training necessary for DMOs like ATKOMA to realize their tourism vision. Solimar recently launched its DMO Development Program to provide local tourism representatives with all the essential tools to create long-term sustainable tourism destinations. The 16-week virtual learning program is designed both for new DMOs or existing DMOs that hope to strengthen the institutional capacity and abilities of their staff. The program is designed to help transition DMOs into a financially sustainable and impactful organization that leads a destination’s development, marketing, management, and research efforts. 

Solimar’s mission is to equip DMO staff with all the tools necessary to build a strong and vibrant brand identity around the destination, attract more visitors, support local economic and social development, strengthen institutional governance, and at the same time ensure better life quality for the community members. Local communities are at the forefront of our response to crises, from Covid-19 to climate change, and tourism must do more to empower their ability to address the many challenges they are likely to face into the future.

The last 12 months have revealed the fragility of one of tourism, one of the fastest-growing industries in the world, and many communities were left to face the consequences of unfettered tourism growth and collapse. From Bali to the Bahamas, overtourism left many destination ecosystems in ruin, unable to sustain communities when travelers stopped arriving.  The pandemic has revealed the importance of placing tourism development and planning firmly in the hands of local communities. Building a new and improved space for tourism stakeholders to collaborate, such as through a DMO like ATKOMA, results in equal input from every stakeholder where financial, social, environmental, and political needs are addressed properly and taken into consideration accordingly. 

Click here to learn more about Solimar’s many community-based tourism projects.



“We rely confidently on Solimar's deep technical experience and professionalism as tourism consultants. You always are exceeding our expectations.”
Leila Calnan, Senior Manager, Tourism Services Cardno Emerging Markets

Contact us

  • Address

    641 S Street NW, Third Floor
    Washington, DC 20001
  • Phone

    (202) 518-6192