Coast of Atauro Island featuring airstrip (credit: Ping Domtta)
Since the launch of MAF’s partnership last April with the Atauro Tourism Association (ATKOMA), Timor-Leste’s Civil Aviation Authority and USAID, the ‘Tourism for All’ initiative has gone from strength to strength.
MAF Timor-Leste Country Director Nick Hitchins (front L) & Pres of ATKOMA Osaias Soares (front R) signing the contract on 15 March 2022 (credit: Lobitos Alves)
MAF officially opens the Atauro Shuttle Service on 1 April 2022 (credit: Lobitos Alves)
MAF’s thrice weekly air shuttle service flies between Timor Leste’s capital Dili to Atauro – a remote, beautiful, unspoilt island off the north coast of Dili.
It’s the only transport service of its kind in the country comprising of regular drop-offs and pick-ups on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
Thanks to this new service, according to year-end 2022 reports, the local economy has been boosted by US$340,020 (£282,676).
Of the 1,889 passengers who wanted to travel to Atauro Island by MAF plane last year, 60% were tourists who, on average, spent US$300 (£250) each on the island.
Like never before, MAF is regularly connecting tourists to a range of goods and services on the island including accommodation, restaurants, local transport, souvenir shopping and sight-seeing tours.
Tourists support the local economy when they buy souvenirs (credit: Lobitos Alves)
Local businesses can profit from planned tourist arrivals (credit: Jason Jobs)
Local businesses can now plan around MAF’s frequent flight service instead of wondering when tourists will arrive. ATKOMA president Osaias Soares says tourism on the island has been transformed:
‘ATKOMA works to ensure sustainable development whilst also caring for our culture. We are grateful to work with MAF – this collaboration is the first step toward developing Atauro’s ecotourism.
‘MAF’s shuttle flight service has greatly contributed to tourism in Atauro. When a tourist arrives on the island, they can access tuk-tuks (3-wheel taxis) and also stay overnight in accommodation. This really benefits the local community and boosts economic growth on the island.’
Osaias Soares, President of the Atauro Tourism Association (ATKOMA)
MAF’s flight to Atauro only takes 15 minutes (credit: Ping Domtta)
15-minute flight or 3-hour ferry?
Without MAF’s regular 15-minute flights, a passenger wanting to reach Atauro Island by ‘public transport’ may want to chance the ferry – an unreliable, precarious deep-sea crossing, which can take up to three hours!
MAF Timor-Leste Country Director Nick Hitchins explains the thinking behind this locally led initiative:
‘Our flights bring tourism to the island, boost local businesses and the economy, create job opportunities for local workers, assist NGOs who work on Atauro, and provide new experiences for newcomers.
‘Travelling to Atauro via MAF not only supports the island’s fledgling tourist industry, which was decimated during Covid-19, but it also supports MAF’s wider humanitarian work across Timor-Leste.
‘Because Atauro Island is so isolated by the ocean, its inhabitants have very limited opportunities to gain employment or to earn money to live.
‘Our flights are having a tremendous economic impact and improving the livelihoods
of those very isolated people.
‘Now we’re bringing domestic and international visitors to explore Atauro Island who have money to spend.’
Nick says moneys raised are ploughed back into MAF Timor-Leste’s core ministry in a sustainable way:
‘Money raised helps support MAF’s work – not just lifesaving medevacs, but it helps reduce dependency on donor funding at a time when economic situations are tightening across the world.
‘It doesn’t replace the need for donations of course, but it does ensure that MAF is as self-sustaining as is possible.’
Empowering isolated locals
Nick also highlights the importance of empowering local people:
‘Economic development activities such as these are vitally important, but they need to be locally led. By providing transport infrastructure that supports initiatives by local people, MAF is actively empowering the isolated to make their own choices.’
Estevão Marcus who owns ‘Estevão Homestay’, says MAF flights have been critical to Atauro Island’s economic recovery since Covid-19 hit international tourism:
‘After the pandemic, we had no visitors or convenient transport, but now we have air transport access and connectivity. MAF brings domestic and international visitors to explore Atauro Island.’
Local people wearing traditional dress (credit: (credit: Lobitos Alves)
Joas Martins, a local tuk-tuk driver agrees:
‘We very much appreciate MAF, ATKOMA and USAID. The ‘Tourism for All’ project brings tourists to the island, which is very important for us because our income depends on visitors. More tourists will help us boost the local economy.’
Necka da Conceição manages ‘Barry’s Place’ – an eco-lodge on Atauro Island, which
also benefits from MAF’s partnership:
‘As homestay owners, MAF’s circular-trip really helps us solve our transport accessibility problems. Without MAF, it was difficult to bring back our visitors to Dili when the boat was not operating. Now we contact MAF, and they bring our visitors back.’
Atauro – an unspoilt paradise
Last year, Atauro Island won the ‘Top 7 Green Destinations Award’ in the ‘Nature and Ecotourism’ category.
MAF pilot Jan Klassen rows a traditional boat (credit: Lobitos Alves)
As well as a range of watersports, the island offers stunning beaches, hot springs, caves, whale and dolphin watching. It’s also a haven for bird-life.
Philip Hewitt, New Zealand’s Ambassador in Timor-Leste has been encouraging people – with the help of MAF – to explore all that the island has to offer:
‘This is a great opportunity for tourism in Timor-Leste, not only for Atauro Island
but also for Dili. Get on the plane, go away for the weekend and enjoy the beautiful hospitality from Atauro.
‘Please make time for some diving, snorkelling and walking in one of the most beautiful places on earth.’
MAF is transforming Timor-Leste’s tourism with aviation (credit: Mark Hewes)
NB. MAF operates two aircraft in Timor-Leste, one of which is on standby at all times for medevacs.
All shuttle flight tickets are sold on the express understanding that medevacs take priority over any other flight.