While you may know very little about the recently independent nation of East Timor, north of Australia, it may be at the epicenter of coral sea biodiversity. Sitting roughly 70 miles east of Bali, the surrounding ocean has some of the most magnificent and untouched marine life anywhere, with researchers recently discovering 253 species of reef fish off the small island of Atauro, surpassing the world record.
Can the country, previously ravaged by years of bloody occupation by Indonesian forces, develop underwater tourism, yet keep its pristine conditions? At the moment, there are only a few dive centers grouped around the capital, Dili, and irregular visits by the ocasional liveaboard.
"We don't want to end up like Bali," said Trudiann Dale, the East Timor director for Conservation International, referring to the nearby tourist center's "garbage emergency" when 100 tons of trash washed up on its beaches.
Since 2002, when East Timor declared independence, the small country has been struggling to find its economic feet. Its single oil field is due to run dry in 2023. It's a struggle to find jobs for its growing population.
Ben C. Solomon reports in The New York Times, "For generations, local fishermen have safeguarded their supplies of fish by creating marine protected areas. Communities would agree on the boundaries, mark them off and ban fishing there: no nets being dragged around, no rumbling boat motors. In these areas, fish and coral develop untouched, so future generations have a chance to fish them."
For adventurous divers, there is a lot to be discovered here, but tourism has remained strikingly low. Roads are rocky and inaccessible, and there are few regular flights into Dili. Diving tourism could be East Timor's economic lifeline, but will it ruin the reefs?
Reefs are clearly being ruined elsewhere. In the Philippines, President Duterte has ordered the small island of Boracay, with its burgeoning beach resorts, closed to tourism for six months while the clean-up begins, describing it as a cesspool tainted by sewage dumped directly into the sea. Bali has had its well-publicized garbage emergency (https://goo.gl/o6TJ1H), and Thailand's Maya Bay on Koh Phi Ley, made famous by the movie The Beach, will be off limits for four months commencing June, in an effort to mitigate the damage done by uncontrolled tourism wrecking the beaches with unsightly litter, which needs to be cleaned up.