I had many surprise moments during my trip in Timor-Leste (if you want to read about all of them, this is the article). The biggest one was probably this: Finding a stunning hotel in the middle of nowhere that operates as a social business: The Balibó Fort and Hotel.
Read on if you are interested in how social entrepreneurship and tourism go hand-in-hand.
Balibo Fort Hotel: a Social Hotel
Firstly, let me introduce you to the hotel. After a rather adventurous six hour drive with our scooter along the North Coast of Timor Leste, my mum and I arrived at Balibó Fort and Hotel. For all those history freaks out there: you will actually be sleeping in the largest and most intact example of Portuguese fort architecture remaining in Timor-Leste. The fort was built 300 years ago by the Portuguese, since they considered Balibó the ideal location due to its commanding height and crossing of trade routes. You can still find the original fort walls, ramparts and cannons. If that’s not cool, I don’t know what is.
History aside, on to our actual experience: upon our arrival we got a welcome drink on the terrace in front of the former colonial residence from the friendly staff. To me the drink was rather unimportant when I saw the stunning view: rolling hills covered in lush forest with Timor Leste to your right, Indonesia to your left and in the back, the deep blue ocean. Paradise on a hill. Thank god we did not have to say goodbye to the view when we went to our room, since it featured a huge glass window. This clever architecture perfectly accentuated the mountain scenery.
Secondly and more importantly, let’s talk about what makes Balibó Fort Hotel special: it operates as a social business. You might ask yourself: what on earth is a social business? To give you the official definition: a social business, as the name reveals, is an innovative venture situated between NGOs and for-profit companies. Like an NGO its primary objective is to solve a social problem. At the same time it aims to create a revenue stream to be self-sustainable.
If we now translate this to the Balibó Fort Hotel, its primary goal is to build community capacity, whilst having an income stream through paying hotel guests. As you can read on their website, it was set up as a social enterprise partnership between Balibó House Trust, Timor Heritage Hotels and the local community. It provides 20 people from the local village with employment and training in hospitality and tourism. The profit from the hotel goes back into the local community with a focus of strategic infrastructure and capacity-building programs. For example, a Community Learning Centre and a dental clinic have been set up by now. In the long-term the goal is to transition to local ownership.
Now that all sounds very nice on paper, doesn’t it. But how did this translate for us in reality as guest? Firstly, the service was not standardized in the way it is in big international hotels, but very authentic and local. The main hostess at the reception had her baby on her arm and her two other children playing at her feet whilst she was doing our check-in. To some people this might seem unprofessional. To me it was a refreshing glimpse of reality. Secondly, the hotel is very much connected to the village community. Personally, I travel because I like to learn and understand what is around me. This was very easy at the Balibó Fort and Hotel, since the staff encouraged us to check out the small community of Balibó. During this one hour we talked to schoolchildren, went to the local market, watched a house being constructed and really got a feeling for rural life in Timor-Leste. We did not feel to be strange hotel guests, but part of the local community.
In summary, our stay at Balibó Fort and Hotel inspired me. It opened my eyes on how tourism can be much more than a pleasurable experience for guests, but actually a catalyst for change in the host country. The Balibó Fort and Hotel manages to leverage the village’s history in order to enable a prosperous future for the community of Balibó.
Balibó Fort and Hotel
+670 7709 1555