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.