PhD student. Tourism teacher. Marketer for good.
Sara Currie has a background in tourism and marketing, and decided to start a Masters. Then she turned it into a PhD and is using it to help Timor-Leste rebuild.
You are currently doing a PhD related to Timor-Leste and tourism – tell us a bit about it:
My PhD is essentially developing a destination branding strategy for Timor-Leste. Tourism will be incredibly important for Timor-Leste in the coming decades as the nation’s economy is heavily reliant on revenue from oil and gas, yet these supplies are not inexhaustible nor as an industry do they provide job opportunities or training for locals. Timor-Leste is a beautiful island nation with pristine reefs, mountains and rainforests so could ideally attract cultural and nature-based tourism, which in turn could provide income, job prospects and cultural exchange. However so many people still remember Timor-Leste in terms of the occupation and civil war and the idea that it is a ‘dangerous place’ is still purported in much of the media. The challenge in my work is to get the message across that Timor-Leste is beautiful, safe and now ready for tourism. Through targeted marketing and a branding strategy my hope is that we can, slowly, begin to grow the tourism industry of Timor-Leste.
What made you interested in tourism? What drew you to Timor-Leste?
I heard the former President Jose Ramos-Horta speak in Melbourne when I was 15 and became interested in the plight of Timor-Leste. I read a lot of Ramos-Horta’s work about developing the nation’s fledgling tourism industry, particularly through the ‘Tour de Timor’, a six-day extreme mountain bike race pioneered by the President in 2009. It was for this event that I first visited the country in 2011. Within weeks I had started working in marketing for the President’s Office; it was such a lucky opportunity. Timor-Leste is one of those amazing places where if you have the right skills and the right attitude, the opportunities are endless and people are incredibly open and welcoming of your support.
You move been Australia and Timor-Leste quite a bit – what sort of work or research do you do when you are in Timor-Leste?
Although I no longer live in Timor-Leste, I can’t quite keep away! These days I am still working with the Ministry of Tourism developing a tourism marketing strategy. I also work for Victoria University managing a three-day education conference held every second year in Timor-Leste and support the Balibo House Trust in marketing a new hotel built in the historic Portuguese Fort in Balibo. Balibo, to the very west of Timor-Leste, is a symbolic place for Australians as it is the site where five Australian journalists were ambushed in 1975 at the start of the Indonesian occupation (the movie Balibo with Anthony LaPaglia is based on these events). The hotel provides an opportunity for tourists to stay inside the historic fort, which affords a stunning view of the Indonesian border and the ocean from where the first Indonesian fleet approached.
What was your hope or intention when you started doing this post grad study? Do you think you will meet that, or has it grown into something different?
I don’t think anything in Timor-Leste quite works out how you plan it! Yet somehow things always work out for the best. Developing the branding strategy has certainly been a longer process than expected; yet as with any destination marketing strategy there are so many diverse stakeholders to consider as well as the complexity and nuances of a nation, so it is not something you can really rush. And in Timor-Leste things don’t move quickly either. It’s island time – and that’s part of the charm!
What is something you have you learned along the way that you wish you knew at the start?
To be honest I knew so little at the beginning, but I’m glad I did, as it’s the journey itself that’s been the experience. You come into a country with huge ideas and a background of ‘corporate knowledge’ and think things will be quite simple. Working in a developing nation will never be simple and the journey is coming to understand the diversity and complexity of another nation; and that even after years you will still only understand such a small part.
What are you most proud of, or what has been the highlight so far?
When I lived in Dili I used to guest lecture in tourism at the Dili Institute of Technology. Generally I would just update the students on the latest findings from my research and we would have a discussion around different aspects of the tourism industry. The students were so excited to listen to new ideas and so grateful for the experience, that I would often get emails weeks after the classes to say thank you and ask when I was coming back. In the same way working with my counterparts at the President’s Office was another highlight. Sharing knowledge, even when you’re still only learning yourself, and working together with colleagues is without doubt the most inspiring part. Timorese are very welcoming of new ideas and it’s not the fact that you’re necessarily an expert that matters, but that you’re willing to share what you do know. It’s also about not just blowing in for a week or two but that you’re committed to seeing out the projects that you’ve started and working together to make things happen.
Do you have a favourite or memorable meeting/location/adventure you can tell us about?
The most memorable moment was definitely early in my first visit. I had only been in the country a week or so when I was asked to be the President’s personal photographer for the week during the Tour de Timor. I am a photography enthusiast, not a professional, so it was a daunting yet very exciting task. On our first day, we jumped into a UN helicopter and I was strapped in with the doors open to take photos of the riders. I hopelessly attempted to carry on a sensible conversation with a world leader, whom had I admired since the age of 15, while trying not to fall out the side of the helicopter. It was definitely a memorable experience!
If there is one person you could sit down and talk with about what you do, who would it be and why?
I would love to chat with John Pilger, not so much about my work in Timor-Leste, but about his. He was one of the few journalists that travelled to Timor in 1990s despite there being a ban on media during this time. His documentary ‘Death of a Nation’ had an important impact on educating people on the true situation inside the country and was one of the many factors that put pressure on governments’ to actually do something about what was happening in East Timor.
What single thing you would like people to learn, know or understand about what you do?
I guess that marketing can be used for good, not just evil as people often claim. When it comes to tourism in Timor-Leste, there are of course a number of internal problems such as say infrastructure and tourism training, but essentially one of the main problems is there are just no tourists! In this way, marketing is both valuable and necessary to bring about positive benefit to a country and its people.
In five words, how does doing this work and study make you feel?
Honoured, inspired, humble and hopeful.
You can follow Sara on Twitter at @saralcurrie
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