The beauty queen and the $300,000 contract

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Caroline Pemberton A rather peculiar story has come out of Timor-Leste about a lucrative contract awarded to a former Miss Australia to be a tourism "spokeswoman" (ambassador) for the tiny half-island nation for a year. The story broke on Tempo Semanal and has caused something of a stir among Timorese and expats alike. It's unusual for stories like this to generate so much online discussion, but apparently this is a subject matter that has touched a few raw nerves and has even led to a handful of insults being thrown around.

First of all, the facts as I understand them are pretty simple. Caroline Pemberton, an Australian model and 2007 Miss Australia, is good friends with Jose Ramos-Horta. This much has been admitted in interviews:

'I am a personal friend of the [East Timorese] President, who backed this contract. It will give the country huge exposure as a tourism destination," Ms Pemberton told The Sun-Herald yesterday.

That in itself might start to ring alarm bells with some people, but let's not pass judgment just yet. The deal struck was for $300,000, half of which goes to Pemberton for her role as a spokeswoman and half of which goes to her production company for eight to 10 three-minute tourism videos. The idea is that this will give a much-needed boost to tourism in Timor-Leste.

Tempo Semanal rather aggressively reported this story and actually published copies of the contracts (here and here), which certainly rubbed a few people up the wrong way. The comments section on the Tempo Semanal story appears to show that opinion is divided on this matter. Is it money well spent? Is it too early for this kind of promotion? Is is an issue that Pemberton possibly only got the job because she is friends with the president?

The contract is potentially a long-term one as there is a clause within that states it will be automatically renewed after one year unless either party cancels it. I must say that my first impression of this was that it's a huge amount of money. She's picking up a cool $12,500 a month, which is a healthy salary in any field. I hadn't heard of Pemberton before I read the story so it's difficult to really judge what star power she has, but from looking through her Wikipedia page I don't know if she is quite on Kylie's level yet.

So that's 150K to Pemberton, but we should also note that the same amount is going to her company to produce up to 10 short videos. It's unclear whether the company involved is owned by Pemberton or whether it's just a company she works for, but from looking at her bio it looks like its her own company. A number of people have pointed out that production costs for projects like this can be a lot more than $150,000, but it's difficult to say without knowing more about the company, how many people will work on the project and what kind of equipment they use.

I must say, I've found the comments on this story rather entertaining, although perhaps a little hotheaded at times. Jose Belo is regularly leaked government contracts to be published on his site and this one seems newsworthy enough to me because it is a lot of money and Timor-Leste hasn't really had a tourism ambassador before, let alone one most Timorese people have never heard of. But we should note that most countries have tourism ambassadors. This isn't something unique to Timor-Leste. Heck, I think near enough every country in the region has a tourism ambassador. In Indonesia at the moment, Richard Gere, of all people, has become an "informal" tourism ambassador for the country.

So if other countries can have tourism ambassadors, why can't Timor-Leste? You could argue that at this point in the country's development, there are other things that need prioritising, such as healthcare and education, but tourism should play a role in the development of the country. Efforts to bring tourists to the country for events like the Tour de Timor and the Dili Marathon have played their part in raising the country's profile, but the country can't rely on annual events to promote tourism.

What is unusual about this story, however, has been the fact that a tourism ambassador's salary has been revealed. I can't find details of how much any other tourism ambassadors are paid. Tempo Semanal went so far as to label Pemberton "Miss Rich", adding that Timor-Leste is the poorest country in the region. The role of tourism ambassador is perhaps not quite as "mysterious" as Tempo Semanal has made out, but the reaction to the story has shown that the government could have done a better job of explaining to people exactly what Pemberton will be doing in her new role and how it could benefit the country.

If $300,000 of the people's money is being spent on a tourism ambassador they have never heard of and if her role isn't fully explained, could it therefore not be argued that it's too soon for this kind of initiative? Just a thought. Surely a tourism ambassador should at least have some kind of connection to the people of the country. It's a difficult one to call.

When I was in Timor-Leste, I didn't see many tourists. The country isn't really on the tourist trail yet, but that doesn't mean I wouldn't recommend people to go. On the contrary, I think now is the perfect time to visit. While there may not be the infrastructure there to fully support mass tourism, that doesn't mean people shouldn't visit Timor-Leste to see what the country has to offer.

There are hotels and guesthouses in every district. The scuba diving is said to be out of this world. There are islands and beaches. Car and motorbike hire is possible. Food is all right, if a little pricey at times. There are eco lodges and lots of places for trekking and exploring. It's unfair to say that Timor-Leste isn't ready for tourists. It is ready. It's just not quite there for everyone because it is rather expensive.

So that's it in a nutshell. It's a lot of money but it's safe to assume that most of the region's tourism ambassadors don't work for free. The fact that Pemberton is a personal friend of Ramos-Horta should raise eyebrows, but let's say Krisdayanti had been given this role, a star who more people in the country have heard of; would the reaction be the same? Furthermore, we aren't talking about a regular contract here. It's not for a consultancy to build a school or fix a road.

Lots to think about anyway.

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