|Boquillas del Carmen, Mexico|
In October of 2012, Solimar was asked to work on a destination marketing plan for a small border town in Mexico called Boquillas. Prior to 2002, Boquillas was a frequent destination for day-trippers from the Big Bend National Park and local Texans, but after 9/11, the border was closed for security reasons, effectively cutting off all economic activity in the region and forcing the community to find new ways to support themselves. Because tourism could no longer be a source of income for the families living there, they began to raise cattle, whose grazing habits endangered the protected areas nearby. The environmental threats and economic hardships faced in this region prompted the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC) to partner with the U.S. National Park Service (NPS) and the Mexican National Commission on Natural Protected Areas (CONANP) to support the development of community tourism in the Big Bend/Rio Bravo region when the government first mentioned reopening the border. CEC asked Solimar to join their team to help develop Boquillas as a sustainable tourism destination and prepare the area for the return of visitors.
Work began with an initial tourism assessment to identify the tourism supply and demand in the region. José Ernesto Hernandez Morales was hired as a local specialist to help conduct the assessment and carry out the training that would occur afterwards. Ernesto, as he is known, has long lived in the Big Bend region, serving as a river guide for more than 20 years before the border was closed. With extensive knowledge of the area and people, Ernesto was able to hold meetings with community members on both sides of the border to engage them with the project and allow their insight to carry the project forward. Through discussions with visitors at Big Bend National Park, a site analysis, and meetings with community members, we were able to identify the needs and interests of target markets visiting the region before moving forward with training and site development.
Solimar began training Boquillas community members in tourism operation and management, including interpretive guide training and sustainability best practices guidelines to reduce the negative impacts of tourism in the region. There was also an introduction of a homestay program as a grassroots alternative to accommodation development, which would require far more investment and capital than was immediately available to the community. The homestay program, in addition to improved interpretive signage, local guides, and educational/experiential tours provided the tools to further engage local community members and visitors. The training sessions also increased the number of local community members benefitting from sustainable tourism and ensured that visitors would receive high-quality and professional tourism services.
Following the training, Solimar developed a business plan for the formation of a community-owned visitor center to manage tourism operations in Boquillas, including the creation of the “Discover Boquillas” brand. After the tourism management training, three community members were selected to manage operations at the visitor center. The visitor center includes a “Discover Boquillas” merchandise section, a small “museum” highlighting the important points in Boquillas history, and the office where the community tourism project is managed and directed. One of three managers is always on duty at the office whenever the border is open to answer questions and provide visitors with information. Solimar also included plans for short-term tourism opportunities such as canoeing, hiking, an artisan market, food services, and local festivals to highlight the regions cultural and culinary traditions. In addition, long-term opportunities such as safari-style tent lodging and spa services built around a nearby hot springs were also discussed. We hope to see these opportunities develop in the coming years as Boquillas continues to establish itself as a sustainable tourism destination.
All the preparation for the border reopening was put to the test on April 10th, 2013, when the border officially opened with only 24 hours notice. Ernesto rushed into action to notify the community to get ready to put into practice everything they learned during the training sessions. Roughly 100 people crossed on April 10th, mostly members of the media, since the general public had not yet been alerted.
In the following month, more than 500 tourists visited Boquillas, demonstrating the community’s loyal and strong following and solidifying its potential to make significant economic gain from tourism. Now that Solimar’s part of the project is coming to a close, we’re thrilled to see the Boquillas community coming back to life and their environment thriving from the transnational love of this area.
Solimar’s Go Blue Central America campaign is in full swing as team members work to increase revenue in local communities through sustainable tourism. Both destinations, Roatan, Honduras and Bocas del Toro, Panama, began a comprehensive marketing campaign through Go Blue back in December when Solimar launched the Go Blue Central America travel planning website. Local businesses created nomination pages that were submitted to the website for review before publication. During the summer of 2012, Geotourism Stewardship Councils (GSCs) were formed in both locations to manage the geotourism project, and under Solimar’s guidance, the GSCs reviewed and selected which nominations would be included on the website based on their qualifications as a sustainable business.
In May of this year, Solimar’s Lucia Prinz traveled to both Go Blue sites to conduct weeklong training sessions with the GSCs where there was also a review of their roles and responsibilities. The training was aimed at organizing and strengthening the councils. Topics included how council members can share their knowledge of “Best Practices” and “Codes of Conduct” by training the businesses participating in the Go Blue website, as well as prioritizing a business strategy that will generate funding to pay the yearly maintenance costs of the website and further promote the destination.
Back in Solimar’s home office, we've been working on the marketing program that focuses on building an online community surrounding the two Go Blue destinations, ultimately driving more visitors to the region and increasing revenue for local businesses. Our online marketing campaign has included an active Facebook page where we make posts weekly about the many things our member businesses have to offer, featuring an average of four businesses each week. We also created a blog that was launched at the end of July where we will post helpful travel tips and information about the destinations for potential visitors. Member businesses will also have access to a series of webinars offering instruction on online and other techniques of marketing that will be available this fall.
The GSCs are very excited about the push provided by the online marketing and educational tools their communities have been given and are now reaching out to local resources to fuel their own projects. The Bocas del Toro GSC has crated an alliance with a university in Panama. The university will send photographers to produce a photo book of Bocas and the profits from the sales will go to both the GSC and the university, allowing funds to be put towards further marketing and educational efforts.
It's no secret that we are passionate about sustainable tourism. We could talk about it all day long, and we love sharing that passion with other people. By hitting the open road (or open air, rather) and participating in two conferences this week, our Vice President of Marketing Services, Erika Harms has the chance to do just that (dont' worry, she won't talk about it all day).
First up is the Geopark Sustainable Tourism Conference in The Burren & Cliffs of Moher Geopark in Ireland. This conference aims to explore the delicate balance between conservation and tourism and identify the environments and partnerships in Ireland and throughout Europe where sustainable destinations can flourish. Erika will speak on one of our favorite topics, the transformative power of sustainable tourism.
In the Thousand Islands Region of the St. Lawrence River, Ontario, Canada, The International Summit on Sustainable Tourism will take place later this week. This conference aims to help attendees overcome the most crucial step of sustainable tourism - moving from concept to profitable application. Experts with applied knowledge of the opportunities and challenges of sustainable tourism will teach attendees how to access new tourism markets, reduce operation costs, and make destinations more competitive. Erika will address building credible businesses and destinations that can thrive in a sustainable environment.
Because education and training is such an important component of successful sustainable tourism development, we're always excited to share our experiences and insights with other tourism stakeholders. Check out some of great tourism resources on our website, or feel free to connect with us if you want more information on our involvement in advancing the sustainable tourism dialogue.
One of the greatest challenges facing destinations around the world is finding a way to bring together tourism stakeholders to work collaboratively to develop, manage, and market their tourism destination.
It’s widely understood by tourism professionals that Destination Management Organizations (DMOs)play a key and important role in connecting the tourism industry and serving as an advocate for tourism that grows local economies while mitigating tourism’s negative impacts to the environment, cultural heritage, and local residents. In most destinations the role of the DMO is focused on destination marketing since most tourism businesses recognize the advantages of working together to create demand for a destination. But anyone who has been to an overcrowded, too touristy, trash-ridden destination should understand why focusing on destination management is just as important as destination marketing.
As important as Destination Management Organizations may be, unfortunately most governments fail to provide financial support to help them. In most developed destinations a combination of a bed tax, industry membership fees, and/or government funding provides modest marketing budgets that in turn convenes and unites the tourism industry around a common vision for tourism development. But this is not always the case in developing destinations. It’s these types of undiscovered destinations that need DMOs more than anywhere since we all know that it’s unplanned, unregulated tourism development that destroys the places we love to visit.
But how do you finance such an organization when there are only a few small tourism businesses in a destination and reluctance from national tourism authorities to decentralize tourism development and marketing?
Ajloun is one of Jordan’s undiscovered gems that offers visitors wonderful experiences ranging from 12thcentury castles to hiking trails through green forests. But the best is that the majority of these services are provided by local communities that are welcoming visitors into their homes and at their dinner tables to experience the incredible Jordanian culture and hospitality. Ajloun was not realizing its tourism potential and a main reason for this was because no one was working together to promote and develop the tourism destination. I knew a DMO was needed, but how to make this work and what is required to make this successful?
This was the question I was tasked with last week while on assignment with the USAID Jordan Tourism Development Program. Below are my reflections based on experience in Jordan and countless other developing destinations on what is needed to establsh and sustain a destination management organization.
While every destination is unique and different I have come to learn that the following three key ingredients are required to establish and sustain a destination management organization in the developing world.
1. Willingness to work together – as easy as it sounds the first and probably the most important ingredient to creating a successful destination management organization is making sure the tourism stakeholders are willing and able to work together. Small tourism destinations are made up of people and people are complicated. Especially in small towns where religious or political beliefs can be as divisive as loyalty to your favorite English Premiere soccer club or who someone is currently dating.
In essence you are asking people who consider themselves competitors to agree to meet, work together, and invest time and resources for a shared good. The first thing I did when visiting Ajloun is interview as many people as I could to try and determine if there was a willingness to work together and understand the personal dynamics in the destination that I need to be aware of. Luckily in Ajloun there was an overwhelming desire to work together. Everyone I met with expressed an overwhelming desire to be part of something that could help elevate Ajloun’s tourism offer.
2. Leadership and Passion – while a willingness to work together is critical, to establishing a Destination Management Organization, equally important is finding someone with the leadership skills and passion for making it happen. This is where most DMOs that are established with the support of international development organizations fail. It’s much easier for the external consultant to step in and be the leader and initiate the work of the organization. But who becomes the glue that keeps everyone together after the donor support ends and the tourism consultant leaves? Who calls the meetings and sets the agenda? Who sees the status quo and is passionate about making change? Without a clear leader or group of leaders that are willing to invest substantial amounts of time and headaches to make this happen, it will not work.
This was one of the challenges I recognized last week in Ajloun. While many people I met are willing to come to a meeting and benefit from a destination marketing initiative, it was not clear to me who would be willing to take the lead and sustain this DMO over time. But this is also why setting up a DMO takes time. Several more conversations and meetings need to take place before I can say one way or another if there exists a leader in Ajloun that will ensure the long term success of this initiative.
3. A Sustainable Business Model – To be honest I have seen destinations that lack one or two of the above mentioned ingredients that are still able to sustain a Destination Management Organization simply because it had a business model that provided sustained sources of income or funding to operate. However even those destinations with the best leaders and a willingness to work together have not been able to sustain a DMO without a sustainable business model.
But how do you create a sustainable business model for a DMO? This is a question that tourism professionals around the globe are trying to solve. In the US we have the membership model and the bed tax that funds most DMOs or new Tourism Improvement Districts (TIDs). In Europe, funding from local governments that recognize tourism’s return on investment supports the operating budgets of most DMOs. But in the developing world or in the case of Ajloun where there is less then 10 tourism enterprises that collectively sell less then $20,000 in services a year, how do we establish a sustainable business model for the DMO? There is no way the businesses in Ajloun will pay a membership fee and even if they would the amount would not go far. Government support is out of the question and the lack of large companies outside the tourism sector means that finding a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) sponsor will be a challenge.
As I interviewed more and more people I realized that the lack of tour operators in the region combined with the inability of many of the community tourism enterprises to take Internet reservations or create packages meant that there was a business opportunity. This business opportunity is around the creation of what I like to call a Destination Management and Marketing Company (DMMC). A DMMC takes the same mission as a DMO and has a governance structure similar to a board of directors of a DMO but it uses a business model that provides services in exchange for compensation to sustain the organization’s operating costs. By no means is creating a DMMC an easy task but I believe that Ajloun is a perfect destination for this social enterprise approach. The next step, like any new business is developing a business plan to define the company’s products, services, target markets, operating plan, and financial models. It is only after this business plan is developed and local stakeholders agree to the concept can the business be established. I look forward to the opportunity to work with the wonderful people I met In Ajloun to see if the social enterprise business model can sustain and support the needs of the tourism industry.
In summary creating a sustainable DMO model for Ajloun will not be an easy task. But together with the local stakeholders, if we can bring everyone together, identify a leader with passion, and establish a sustainable business model we might be able to help Ajloun realize its tourism potential.
For more information about Solimar’s work in sustainable tourism in Jordan please click here.
For more information about Destination Management please download this toolkit we helped establish for USAID and the Global Sustainable Tourism Alliance.
Before you embark on your next adventure, take the time to view Gringo Trails. This feature-length documentary, directed and produced by American anthropologist Pegi Vail, sheds insight on the unanticipated impact of one of the world’s most powerful globalizing forces—tourism.
Gringo Trails illustrates three cautionary case studies that reveal the devastating effects tourism can have on local cultures and the environment: one deep in the Bolivian Amazon, another on the Salt Flats of Bolivia, and the third on Thailand’s small island, Ko Pha Ngan.
The film flashes back to a 21 year old backpacker, Costas Christ. Eager to find a tourist-free island paradise, Costas travels off the “gringo trail” to the small island of Ko Pha Ngan. It is 1979 and during his month on Haad Rin Beach, Costas finds his paradise—authenticity. The film then jumps forward to 1999 showing Haad Rin Beach jam packed with over 10,000 people celebrating New Year’s Eve. This once pristine and secluded beach is now home to the famous Full Moon Festival, which attracts thousands of travels from across the world. Local businesses have flourished but socio-cultural and environmental aspects of Ko Pha Ngan are devastated.
Haad Rin Beach, 1979
As a local Thai admits, in Ko Pha Ngan, it is too late. Sustainable tourism development requires a thorough assessment. Context is key. This is why Solimar International stresses the importance of strategic planning, particularly destination assessments. Destination assessments provide in-depth analysis of the competitiveness of a region as a tourism destination and are key to identifying the next steps in sustainable tourism development.
Time and again throughout Gringo Trails, the viewer comes across tour operators, guides, and travelers who are not properly trained in sustainable tourism practices. The deterioration of the Salt Flats and the decreasing anaconda population in the Bolivian pampas, are partly due to a lack of professional training and education. Strategic planning can only be carried out to full potential if the destination has a trained workforce and educated travelers. Recognizing the instrumental role education has in cultivating sustainable tourism, Solimar works deeply to promote specialized training and education services geared toward sustainable tourism.
The case studies depicted in Gringo Trails demonstrate the importance and significance of sustainable tourism. Pegi Vail leaves the viewers with hope, as she takes us to a small indigenous village in South America where well-planned tourism development has proved to be a positive force in the village’s economic and social development as well as its environmental and cultural conservation. Gringo Trails truly is an eye-opener for the conscious traveler.
Gringo Trails made its theatrical release September 4-11 at Cinema Village in New York City. For a full list of screenings visit gringotrails.com/screenings.
For more information on Solimar’s tourism assessments download the free Tourism Assessment Process EBook.
Since September 2013, Solimar International has been supporting USAID's BIZ+ Program in Sri Lanka. The country has been opening its doors to the world to improve its economy after a violent 26-year conflict that ended in 2009.
USAID's BIZ+ program aims to stimulate economic growth, job creation, and to increase household incomes in the economically lagging regions of Sri Lanka by providing small and medium-sized businesses with the technical know-how and financial resources they need to succeed.
Using our expertise in tourism training and education, Solimar is currently supporting two local tourism businesses in Eastern Sri Lanka by providing technical skills training in developing and managing tourism. By assisting Ecowave Travels in Arugam Bay and East N West in Batticaloa/Passekudah, we are working to increase not only awareness about the Eastern Sri Lanka region but grow tourism-related jobs as well.
Lucia Prinz, our Product Development and Training Specialist, is currently in Eastern Sri Lanka providing the businesses with support on product enhancement, establishing systems, tourism training, and creating promotional materials.
Even at the early stage of the project, Lucia has already received praises for her impressive business plan from the project manager of BIZ+ and one of the directors at Ecowave.
Solimar recently caught up with Lucia to get updates from the project.
Solimar International: Can you tell us more about the two local businesses, Ecowave and East N West, we are supporting through tourism training in Eastern Sri Lanka?
Lucia Prinz (LP): Both of the businesses are social enterprises. Ecowave’s goal is to provide employment opportunities to community people. They work on two main areas, one is organic agriculture and the other is tourism. In organic agriculture, local farmers provide them with vegetables that they sell to hotels and residents in Arugam Bay. In tourism, they strive to involve locals in their operations: Ecowave employs local women as cooking instructors for the cooking class, and both areas provide tourism training and employment opportunities for positions like tour guides, drivers, and fishermen. The Fisherman Association that provides the service of taking the tourist in their catamaran on a tour in a lagoon has benefited from this support, for example.
East N West also works to provide employment for the people of the communities that they visit in their tours. They also charge LKR (Sri Lankan rupees) 100, which is less than U$ 1, as a social fund; when the fund reaches a certain amount they will analyze the needs for each community and help them to acquire something that they need.
Solimar: Who are the partners and stakeholders for this project?
LP: The main partners are Ecowave and East N West, in addition to an Italian nonprofit organization called Institute for International Economic Cooperation (ICEI), which is based in Milan. ICEI is a Member of the UN World Tourism Organization and works in sustainable and responsible tourism in different countries.
Solimar: What kinds of tourism training have you already provided to our partners?
LP: I have completed training of a sales manager at Ecowave in Arugam Bay in selling techniques and in financial procedures. For East N West, I have done training on online marketing. For both companies, I have advised on improvement of their tours.
Solimar: What are the next steps in the project?
LP: I am going to develop a 30-hour Guide Training for the guides of both Ecowave and East N West. The guides currently have very little knowledge about the history and nature of their areas. I am also going to provide them with interpretation techniques in guiding so that they can deliver information in a more fun and professional way, in addition to improving their overall professionalism as tour guides. This will start in November.
The Guide Training course focuses heavily on dynamic activities and opportunities for participants to practice and apply their new skills. In the training sessions the guides will be instructed in interpretation and natural and cultural history together.
Solimar is pleased to be part of the USAID VEGA/BIZ+ Program and we are looking forward to this next phase of activities.
Does your company require the tourism training that Lucia is providing to our partners in Eastern Sri Lanka? If you are interested in learning how to improve your own tourism staff, download Solimar's Tool Kit on Tourism Workforce Development.
In sustainable tourism development, the Global Sustainable Tourism Council maintains that an enterprise is considered sustainable if it impacts the local economy by employing capable local people. Sustainable enterprise development requires tourism services training in order to equip staff with the capacity to manage and operate the enterprises and organizations.
The challenge in developing countries, however, is finding local people with all the skills needed to run a successful tourism enterprise. As such, high quality tourism services trainings are key in developing local employees to be more qualified.
The first step in tourism services training is to assess the needs of your workforce. Creating an education module to address the identified. There are several types of training modules that you can provide your staff depending on the skills they need.
The following is a selection of the possible tourism services training modules you can offer for workforce development in sustainable tourism development. These are based on Solimar's experience working in partnership with local businesses and organizations throughout the years.
If you are a new tourism organization or business seeking to develop a destination, then you might need to conduct a tourism assessment to determine what products or services you offer about your destination.
You can train your local staff on how to conduct a tourism assessment and teach them why it's important. This will encourage them to be creative in developing other products that could be linked to your core business. For example, if you are a tour operator, locals who know about tourism assessment can recommend new possible tourist routes you can offer.
Sustainable tourism development requires sound business planning skills including being able to find a strategy that balances economic, environmental, and sociocultural development. Local managers need to know how to protect their natural resources while at the same time gain a profit.
Training your local management staff on sustainable business planning will help them develop these strategies rooted in their own knowledge of the destination and their local culture.
Customer Service & Guide Training
The heart of the tourism industry is good customer service at all levels. Whether you are a business in the food, accommodation, tours, or airline industry, training your staff on how to offer good customer service is essential to success.
Look at your competitors and read about the best customer services practices in your field to have a sense of what you want your staff to achieve.
For businesses that offer tours, training locals how to be good tour guides will be vital. This not only ensures proper and meaningful interpretation of the sights that will be visited but also improves customer service to match the needs and expectations of the visitors.
One of the challenges facing sustainable tourism development and local social enterprises is being able to effectively market a product or destination to the right market segments. Most of the time, they have the product, but are not aware of strategies to connect and reach out to potential customers. You may have a very sustainable tourism product, but if the market does not know about it or cannot access it, then your efforts will go to waste.
Providing your staff with marketing training helps them understand the importance of looking at what the market needs, what the consumer behavior patterns are, where the potential customers are, how to reach these potential customers, and how to convince the target market to visit a destination, join a tour, purchase a product, or stay in your lodge.
If you feel that you need all of these services but are not sure if you can afford all of them for your staff, prioritize the most urgent and significant needs and begin there. Solimar can also help you in developing your own tourism services training module.
Download the Tourism Workforce Development toolkit to guide you in assessing and designing your own programs.
Solimar International is starting off the New Year right – we’re proud to have just launched a new project in Sri Lanka on January 4th of this year! This project is called Entrepreneurship and New Product Development in the Tourism Sector of the Northern and Eastern provinces of Sri Lanka. With the International Finance Corporation as our client, we look forward to working hard on this project until its intended end date of December 31st, 2016.
Sri Lanka is a small island south of India, boasting gorgeous beaches, diverse wildlife, and lush rainforests as well as awe-inspiring ancient Buddhist ruins. Generally, Sri Lanka’s Western coast has been its tourism hub, but the Northern and Eastern provinces of Sri Lanka have recently been experiencing an emerging shift in the tourism industry. Although these parts of the nation encounter obstacles with respect to providing top-notch quality to tourists, we know that there is opportunity for growth and positive change. We intend to help develop these provinces into high quality destinations for international tourists with the goal of attracting visitors, both international and regional, for years to come. In this year’s project, led by Lucia Prinz, we are working towards boosting meaningful conversations in the Northern and Eastern provinces, specifically the Mannar, Batticaloa and Ampara districts, aiming for the advancement of improved policies and services between the private sector and government.
During our year working towards improving the Sri Lanka tourism sector, we will be busy with essential tasks including: collaborating with local tourism providers to ensure the most up-to-date client services, and implement skills development training to these tourism providers in geographical areas using our Small Tourism Enterprise Operations and Management training course as a model. We will also provide workshops, sales training, and technical assistance and enhanced market access to promote our designated Sri Lanka provinces. In addition, we aim to organize local festivals to promote Sri Lankan provincial culture and tradition.
By the project’s end, our anticipated results include: implementation of a Small Tourism and Enterprise Operations and Management Course; creation of measures for best practices to submit a work plan to the IFC; enactment of a relationship between government and private stakeholders in tourism; expansion of tourism products or services, and implementation of a marketing strategy. These are just a few of our anticipated results, and we will keep readers posted on our progress throughout the year. Solimar is excited to start this new journey towards improving Northern and Eastern Sri Lanka tourism!