Author: Chloe King

Travel Can Be the Tool to Write the Future We Want — But We Must Do it Carefully

In the midst of our first global lockdown last May, actors from the BBC comedy series W1A created a hilarious parody of their initial lockdown meeting via Zoom, the inauguration of a so-termed BBC Covid-19 “Bounce Back” group to assess the future of television broadcasting as millions were confined to their homes. “What we know of course is that it won’t look anything like the old normal,” Ian Fletcher, one of five floating heads, chimes in. “Or as I think we can safely call it now—the past.”

Nearly a year on, this dry satire resonates almost too well with the rhetoric we have all been swimming in this past year: talk of building back better/greener/bluer/cleaner has dominated narratives from national stimulus plans to entire industries—tourism perhaps the first among them to adopt such language. “I’m a firm believer that every problem is a solution waiting to happen,” Fletcher says confidently to his fellow attendees, their phones held comically aloft as their gazes drift idly from the screen. “And I think we can say with some confidence that we’re looking at one of the biggest solutions any of us have ever seen here.”

Rebuilding Tourism
What’s in a name? Green Destinations is one such organization working to build tangible change in tourism destinations around the world

A recent Bloomberg piece titled “The World Isn’t Building Back Better After the Pandemic” highlights that, out of $14.6 trillion in recovery spending announced by the 50 largest world economies in 2020, only 2.5% has been allocated to green activities. Money instead went largely towards rescuing existing corporations and businesses, with no innovation incentives or green strings attached. It is becoming clearer that, in many ways, we have squandered our opportunity to innovate and solve the problems that got us into this mess in the first place. Like Ian Fletcher, much of the world looked at the problem and expected the solution to present itself, so long as there was a catchy slogan to drive home the message.

Indeed, there is a much bigger crisis at hand with few solutions in sight. With 2020 officially tied for the hottest year on record, the public seemed to grow numb to the scale of destruction at our feet, from fires raging in the Amazon to mass coral bleaching events in some of the worlds’ most pristine reefs. Last year was not a good year for human health or the planet, despite understanding better than ever how these two issues are inextricably linked. Both of these crises require immense global cooperation and human ingenuity to solve; luckily, preventing future pandemics and climate disaster both share one core solution: protecting biodiversity.

As tourism practitioners and tourists ourselves, we understand the incalculable value of standing in the center of a rainforest at twilight, the air transformed into a dense curtain of sound, thrumming with heat and life. Around you grow untold numbers of medical cures to our present and future ailments, stored deep in the soil or in the smallest cell of a bright jungle flower. Cut down to clear the way for human ambition, these cells unleash their power against us, as diseases once contained within dense forest walls skip species and grind all we know to be “normal” to a screeching halt. We have spent a year witnessing the fruits of our destruction. But for everyone who has ever emerged from that jungle night, we too know the power that comes from our perseverance to protect it.

At Solimar we remain deeply committed to realizing this vision to “build back better” alongside our colleagues and communities across the globe, but we also know this cannot be done through rhetoric alone. The scale of the challenge is massive: we lost tropical forest cover the size of California between 2004 and 2017, representing biodiversity and livelihood opportunities we may never get back. Tourism, when it operates at its very best, represents one of the only viable alternatives to continued economic degradation. Community-based conservation activists, from Costa Rica to Cameroon, have shown what happens when this shift begins from the ground up. While Covid-19 has demonstrated the danger of overreliance on an industry easily susceptible to shock, ecosystems that have been sustained thanks in part to the tourism economy can now supply food to local people when visitors disappear, from marine reserves in Indonesia to regenerative agriculture farms in Mexico.

This fact highlights a crucial lesson learned this year. As tourism practitioners who advocate for conservation at the core of our projects, it is crucial that we ask ourselves: for whom are we building back better? Who gets to define “better” in the first place? If better means greater resilience and ability to adapt to change, why is it that local communities who have done the least to cause climate change must be “made” to be resilient to disasters beyond their control? As conservationists and policy practitioners, we must critically analyze the language we use in the everyday discourse of development, especially as we emerge from a year that has changed all of our lives irrevocably.

A recent graphic making its rounds on social media depicted the entire world in three colors: the wealthiest of nations, who would achieve widespread vaccine coverage by the end of this year; still wealthy others who would reach the target by the end of 2022; and the rest of the world, who would not achieve it until beyond then, if ever. As “vaccine passports” open up travel for the haves and tourist destinations for the have nots, we must be more vigilant than ever that we are not just “building back better” for those already better off. Covid-19, for the foreseeable future, is here to stay. We must put in the work to ensure that inequality does not stay with it.

As 2020 came to an end, reporter Gao Yu (高昱) wrote a letter that went viral across Chinese social media channels, as he expressed his despair at the state of affairs in China—but with a message that resonated deeply with how much of the world feels. One memorable passage, translated to English by the China Media Project, reads:

If we have failed then we have failed. I am a positive pessimist. Even if we have returned to the darkness, I won’t go and dwell on those days when light shone. If there is no light, then I must fetch fire. We don’t persevere toward the good things in the world because there is hope; our perseverance is what gives hope. Anything worth having is worth holding on to, and worth waiting for.

If there is one thing that 2020 has made clear, it is this: normal means nothing. Entire economic engines, ways of life and travel, and rules of international engagement have been written over and reworked in ways that no one could have predicted. We make no more promises to the future we expect—only the one we want. In the biting humor of Ian Fletcher, our mock-Zoom chat leader: “This is the time to think big thoughts, and to make the unprecedented into a precedent.” We have spent a year thinking big. It’s time we get to work.

With a global pause in the industry over the past year, Solimar revisied many of our former community-based tourism projects to compile lessons learned from our own work across the globe, in projects both past and present.

The emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic and the ongoing climate change crisis has prompted tourist destinations around the globe to re-examine their practices and question the notion of what “sustainable tourism” truly means. Once seen as a foundational framework for approaching tourism, this industry reset has led to the reimagination of community-based tourism.

Community-based tourism (CBT) is characterized by collective participation and decision-making by all stakeholders in a destination, from government officials to citizens, developers and planners (Haywood 1988). As any tourism practitioner can relate to, this is easier said than done. A complex range of factors must be considered when developing and planning tourism development to allow CBT enterprises to thrive.

Previous Solimar projects have used CBT practices to engage citizens in tourism development and share in the growth of local tourism-based economies.

In Jamaica, Solimar worked with the Jamaica Social Investment Fund, a self-organized coalition of community members in tourism, to promote their products and services. 

Jamaica Community Tourism
(Jamaica Community Experiences)

In Colombia, Solimar worked to build the capacity of similar tourist groups surrounding Utría National Park. Tourism industry workers in Chocó, Colombia use this training to work for the conservation of the area’s natural biodiversity. 

Colombia Community Tourism
National Parks of Colombia

These projects demonstrate how the value of CBT practices extends beyond the destination community. Prioritizing the contributions and participation of all members of a community is not only a foundational principle in destination management, it is also an important aspect of visitor experiences. Travelers are eager to take part in a diverse array of cultural, natural, and culinary experiences, and are increasingly interested in using their travel to give back to the destinations where these experiences are based. From staying with local communities to increasing expectations for all-inclusive resorts, travelers are more eager than ever to engage with cultural heritage, environmental conservation, and community-based tourism initiatives…and the travel industry is taking note.

Ataúro Island, Timor-Leste 

The Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste (commonly referred to as East Timor), situated on the Southeastern border of Indonesia between the Timor and Savu Seas, is an emerging tourism destination in Southeast Asia with rich history, cultural legacies, and nature areas – both above and below the ocean. Colonized by the Portuguese in the 16th century, Timor-Leste briefly gained independence in 1975 before being invaded and brutally ruled by Indonesian forces until 1999. Hundreds of thousands of Timorese perished under Indonesian occupation, with occupying forces destroying some 80% of the country’s infrastructure when forced to retreat following its United Nations-sponsored act of self-determination in 1999. As a result, Timor-Leste is one of the most impoverished countries in Southeast Asia, with a lack of available economic opportunities despite its immense natural resource base. 

Timor Leste Community Tourism

Under the efforts of the USAID Tourism for All Project, Solimar began working with local communities of Atauro Island in 2019 to develop a strategic plan for tourism development in the region, with the hopes of creating more economic opportunities for local communities. Located 25 km to the north of Timor-Leste, Ataúro is a rarely-visited destination home to six sucos (or villages), the ancient and culturally significant Manucoco Peak, and over 300 species of fish. Situated in the Coral Triangle, an area with the highest biodiversity of any marine environment in the world, Ataúro is a diver’s paradise: from deep reef walls on the West coast to kaleidoscopic coral pinnacles on the East, hundreds of creatures swim through the waters year round, including several endangered species of whales and dolphins that use the waters as migratory corridors during winter months. 

Community Tourism in Atauro Island
The incredible biodiversity of Atauro’s coral reefs

Through visioning, listening and planning exercises with local stakeholders and tourism advocates, Solimar helped to establish a Destination Management Organization (DMO) for the island in 2019, known as ATKOMA. By leading tourism development initiatives on the island, the Asosiasaun Turizmu Koleku Mahanak Atauro (ATKOMA) helps to ensure that tourism directly supports the community, and that its development includes the voices and vision of local people. From training local tour guides to selling day tours and multi-day itineraries exploring the most remote corners of the island, ATKOMA is the captain that steers the tourism ship in the direction that the community wishes to sail. With local leaders, forums for engagement, and membership programs with private-sector businesses, DMOs like ATKOMA are the focal point to achieving sustainable community-based tourism development in destinations all over the world. 

DMOs and Community-Based Tourism: Lessons from Timor-Leste

In reimagining community-based tourism development, Solimar International is doing more than ever to provide the resources and training necessary for DMOs like ATKOMA to realize their tourism vision. Solimar recently launched its DMO Development Program to provide local tourism representatives with all the essential tools to create long-term sustainable tourism destinations. The 16-week virtual learning program is designed both for new DMOs or existing DMOs that hope to strengthen the institutional capacity and abilities of their staff. The program is designed to help transition DMOs into a financially sustainable and impactful organization that leads a destination’s development, marketing, management, and research efforts. 

Solimar’s mission is to equip DMO staff with all the tools necessary to build a strong and vibrant brand identity around the destination, attract more visitors, support local economic and social development, strengthen institutional governance, and at the same time ensure better life quality for the community members. Local communities are at the forefront of our response to crises, from Covid-19 to climate change, and tourism must do more to empower their ability to address the many challenges they are likely to face into the future.

The last 12 months have revealed the fragility of one of tourism, one of the fastest-growing industries in the world, and many communities were left to face the consequences of unfettered tourism growth and collapse. From Bali to the Bahamas, overtourism left many destination ecosystems in ruin, unable to sustain communities when travelers stopped arriving.  The pandemic has revealed the importance of placing tourism development and planning firmly in the hands of local communities. Building a new and improved space for tourism stakeholders to collaborate, such as through a DMO like ATKOMA, results in equal input from every stakeholder where financial, social, environmental, and political needs are addressed properly and taken into consideration accordingly. 

Click here to learn more about Solimar’s many community-based tourism projects.

 

 

Chloe King is a key member of the Solimar team. Learn how her work in marine life conservation in Timor-Leste and Indonesia led her to joining Solimar.

During my second day as a Projects for Peace Fellow in Timor-Leste with friend and fellow researcher Jenny Lundt, we wandered into one of two restaurants on Ataúro Island, where we would be spending the next four months researching how tourism was impacting marine conservation. Overhearing a customer on the phone speaking Bahasa Indonesia, I approached and struck up a conversation. Bekerja di mana? I asked. Where do you work?

Antonio handed us his business card, “Solimar International” printed neatly beneath the USAID logo. Solimar was an international sustainable tourism consulting firm, he explained, working in over 500 destinations to utilize tourism as a sustainable development pathway. Conservation was at its core. Their effort was just kicking off in Timor-Leste under USAID’s Tourism for All project; Antonio was the local coordinator.

One thing led to another over the course of an incredible summer of field work, and I soon found myself working part time for Solimar as my Fulbright research in Indonesia began, utilizing my research from Ataúro to help develop content for the island website and begin to train local coordinators to conduct tours.

I soon learned the intricacies and complex challenges of developing, managing, and marketing over 500 destinations around the world while ensuring tourism maximizes benefits and minimizes impacts to the natural environment. Contracted by development and conservation organizations, governments, and private sector entities as the world leader in this niche field, Solimar faces diverse pressures to both develop destinations and conserve cultural and natural heritage. Demonstrating that tourism is a viable sustainable development pathway for destinations large and small, particularly in light of a pandemic that has shut down the industry globally, is one of the greatest challenges facing this organization as it attempts to uphold conservation goals globally.

Tourism supports 1 in 10 jobs globally and represents 10% of global GDP. It is one of the largest drivers of economic growth, yet it is often seen as a sacrificing natural and cultural integrity to achieve it. The Covid-19 pandemic has illuminated this dichotomy: with 100% of destinations globally introducing travel restrictions in March of 2020, headlines highlighted nature returning to once-crowded canals of Venice or to the shores of the Galapagos Islands. Yet these stories about reprieves from the crowds failed to acknowledge the complex relationship tourism plays with conservation: without visitors to the Galapagos, the marine park—and the thousands of livelihoods dependent upon it—became a paper park, with foreign fishing fleets poised to reap the benefits of years of hard-won conservation as the last tourist vessel docked to shore.

My own research in Indonesia demonstrated the dangers of relying too heavily on tourism to support local economies or conservation initiatives. In Bali, I witnessed the fallout from a global shutdown, where 80% of the economy was directly dependent upon tourism. In Wakatobi, where conservation schemes to protect the reefs were funded entirely by a private dive operator, national park officials were powerless to prevent overexploitation when dive operations ceased. My findings, and Solimar’s work across the globe, demonstrates that the tourism industry works best when it improves socio-ecological resilience, helping communities and ecosystems withstand potential future shocks like Covid-19.

This is not to say that the tourism industry has not wreaked havoc on ecologically fragile destinations, or gracelessly commodified traditional cultures globally. But this time, with the opportunity to reset, there is a possibility it might be different. Solimar is poised to be a global leader in reimagining tourism as it restarts across the globe. Demonstrating how tourism can promote conservation—by increasing environmental awareness, diversifying incomes, improving environmental research, financing conservation, and strengthening partnerships—is the task facing such organizations in this travel-averse world we are emerging into. The success of communities, livelihoods, and conservation depend on it.

Following a trip to Georgia in January to support the USAID Economic Security Program, Solimar International CEO Chris Seek prepared to embark on a journey to support the strengthening of several new Destination Management Organizations (DMOs) across the country. This initial trip revealed a key challenge: fragmented collaboration among tourism stakeholders necessitated the development of a national tourism action plan and on-the-ground support of regional DMOs. All of this work is both familiar and fundamental to Solimar’s mission in supporting global development through sustainable tourism.

The Solimar team planned to implement its traditional approach to developing these resources, training a local expert to help implement recommendations that were developed as part of the DMO Development Toolkit. However, in the following weeks and months it became increasingly apparent that nothing about this approach would be traditional. Everything about travel, the world, and Solimar’s strategy was about to change due to the COVID-19 travel restrictions.

Like many in the tourism field, we found ourselves questioning what the future would bring when, by the end of March, 100% of destinations worldwide had introduced travel restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Solimar’s business model has always been based around deeply engaging with host communities. This most-often includes conducting in-person workshops and trainings, developing personal connections with local coordinators, and familiarizing ourselves with the on-the-ground context and teams leading the projects. Not only was traveling to support destination development no longer possible, but the very industry Solimar supports—travel and tourism—was shut down almost entirely, with businesses and destinations focused on survival rather than the future of marketing and management.

This growing crisis forced us to critically evaluate both Solimar’s approach to destination management and the very nature of the tourism industry itself. As the shock of the crisis wore off, articles and opinion pieces began to surface with a common theme: Was COVID-19 our chance to do tourism differently? As dolphins returned to once crowded canals of Venice and residents learned what it meant to be tourists in their own towns, it became clear that a return to the status-quo was not an option. Solimar quickly proposed its own COVID-19 response strategy to our clients, focused on a three-pronged action plan that emphasized a critical examination of the tourism industry: 1) Respond to the immediate challenges of COVID-19 and needs of the community, 2) Restart the destination’s marketing and management efforts, and 3) Reimagine what tourism means to your destination.

This strategy became the centerpiece of Solimar’s own reimagining of its resources, understanding how to best serve clients like the tourism industry in Georgia in the COVID-19 era. Unable to provide on-the-ground technical support for these regional DMOs, Solimar began working to create an online DMO Development Program to take newly established DMOs on a 16-week journey of self-reliance to improve the capacity and understanding of DMO Development in Georgia. Not only would this new online format enable training for multiple DMOs at once, but it would also allow for a far more comprehensive and detailed program that could be replicated in regions around the world—travel restrictions or not.

Each week, the course features a specific topic relevant to DMO development, from COVID-19 action plans to DMO board development to funding models and more. Participants have access to a weekly Learning Session presentation from Solimar CEO Chris Seek, an Expert Interview with various DMO professionals around the globe, and examples and best practices compiled from across the industry. Participants then work to put their learning into practice by completing a weekly output exercise, from marketing and branding plans to board policy documents, that help strengthen DMO governance. The Solimar team provides feedback on these exercises each week during a Live Learning Session, where participants have the opportunity to discuss any challenges they had with the content and ask questions to our team of experts.

Thanks to this COVID-19 pivot in our training methods and resources, more DMOs will ultimately be trained and established over the course of the program. Rather than one-on-one support with one DMO in Georgia, six DMOs over the course of the program will produce all the outputs necessary for a functioning, well-run DMO: COVID-19 action plans, essential governing documents, board policy orientation guides, operating budgets, new funding streams, members and visitor surveys, marketing and social media strategies, six new or improved websites, and much more.

Solimar International, like many others in the tourism industry, has been forced to critically re-evaluate and reimagine the resources we provide to our clients, the way they are delivered, and their intrinsic value in the post-COVID-19 era. The creation of this program demonstrates that international development is not only possible, but more critical than ever. Utilizing the tools that make our strange new world more connected than ever, Solimar is looking forward to bringing these resources to destinations around the globe—regardless of the distance or challenges we face together.

 

 

“We rely confidently on Solimar's deep technical experience and professionalism as tourism consultants. You always are exceeding our expectations.”
Leila Calnan, Senior Manager, Tourism Services Cardno Emerging Markets

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