Visitor Centers We Love

When working in destination marketing, it’s easy to get caught up in the initial phases and to focus your attention and energy upon attracting visitors to your destination. But what happens once the visitors arrive? Your visitors need a physical place to begin their trip, to get comfortable with the location, and to plan their time in the destination. In order to fulfill your visitors’ needs and serve the market, an effective destination visitor and information center, or a “welcome center,” is key.

Fantastic visitor centers come in all shapes and sizes. A few of our favorites include National Geographic’s extensive Grand Canyon Visitor Center with features such as an IMAX theatre and detailed maps and information, the Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, which is simple but comfortable and well-staffed, and the Bocas del Toro visitor center, which was the region’s first tourist center

This post will cover the 5 must-haves that make these visitor centers great and are valuable for any destination’s visitor center.

5 Must-Haves for a Great Visitor Center:

1. Amenities- Consider the amenities that would make a visitor comfortable upon recently arriving in your destination. Clean and free bathrooms are always important. Especially if your destination is geared towards families, it would be helpful to offer baby changing facilities. If possible, consider the accessibility of your visitor center for the handicapped- a ramp or no stairs and spacious walkways are a good start.

An essential for visitors, particularly foreign visitors, is a way to get or exchange money. It is extremely helpful to offer a safe and reliable ATM and/or currency exchange machine on-site. If your visitors will be driving, be sure that there is adequate parking space available.

Depending upon the weather in your destination, and whether your budget allows, consider the heating or air conditioning in your visitor center to ensure that your visitors are physically comfortable while they visit the site. Make sure that the building itself is clean and well-lit, presenting an inviting space to guests. The provision of these amenities will help your visitors to be comfortable in your destination

2. Practical Information– Visitors come to your visitor center in order to gather information about the destination. With this in mind, be sure that your information is current, accurate, trustworthy, and delivered in a high quality manner. Digital kiosks, a master guide to the destination, and a local city guide are all great ways of providing information. Your visitor center should be the number one place for visitors to go to find information about the destination and to have their questions answered. Try to anticipate the information that visitors will need.

Maps and directions are essential; provide professional maps of the local and surrounding area that are clearly labeled. Consider whether your visitors will be driving, walking, or hiking in your maps. If they will be driving it will be most important to have streets clearly indicated, while for those seeing the destination on foot, it will be more helpful to provide walking routes and nature trails. Between your maps and staff, be sure that directions are easily available for all primary attractions, restaurants, and lodging sites. Provide transportation information for both public and private options, such as public bus or rail options and private car rental options and costs.

Other useful information includes tours, lodging, and attractions. If possible, it is helpful if tickets are available for purchase directly at the visitor center, especially if a combination deal is available such as “3 museums for the price of 2” or “save 20% when you purchase tickets for the bird-sighting walk and the river boat tour together.” If additional information resources, such as guidebooks and translation dictionaries, are available, it is convenient for the visitor if they are offered as well.

3.  Education Materials– In addition to practical information about the region and tours, educational and enrichment materials are valuable additions to your visitor center. Include interactive and visually appealing displays to help visitors learn about the history, wildlife, people, and culture of the region.

By allowing visitors to learn more about the region than information directly related to their tour, they will gain a deeper connection to the region and have a more meaningful tour and trip.

4. Friendly Staff– While nice amenities and good information are both very important, the importance of a friendly face cannot be overemphasized. The international tourist expects to find someone at an information center who is knowledgeable, polite, respectful, fluent in the tourist’s language or English, and eager to help.

5. Souvenirs– While a great visitor center doesn’t require souvenirs, tourists enjoy buying memorabilia to commemorate their visit, and a visitor center is a great place to sell it. Postcards are great, as well as local crafts, foods, jewelry, and products. Offering locally-made souvenirs allows visitors to remember their trip with a meaningful gifts or memento while also supporting the local economy.

The importance of sustainable tourism development is increasingly recognized throughout the sector. However, it has been a challenge for many organizations to integrate sustainability into tourism management and operations.

Here are a few tips and examples on how to incorporate sustainability in your destination’s tourism management and operations.

Involve Local Residents and Communities in Tourism Planning

Sustainable tourism development requires the participation of local residents and businesses at the planning stage. By consulting with local stakeholders, you gain their support and reduce conflict as the plan progresses.

In Solimar’s Geotourism projects, which seek to highlight the unique culture and heritage of a region through the voices and stories of the people that live there, local residents are invited to nominate places of interest. This provides more economic benefits to local businesses especially those that are less known. The nominations are reviewed by a Stewardship Council, composed of representatives from the region, before being used to create an interactive website, a MapGuide, and a Smartphone app.

Establish Partnerships with Different Stakeholders

Effective collaboration among different stakeholders from the government, tourism boards, businesses, and local communities is crucial to successful sustainable tourism management and operations. This facilitates a more balanced system of decision making as the priorities of various sectors are considered.

To assist Uganda in tourism development, Solimar actively involved stakeholders from each part of the tourism and conservation sectors. The cooperation among the stakeholders was important to enhance tourism products, build strong community enterprises, strengthen linkages among different attractions, and bolster the success of the program.

Develop Products Based on the Destination’s Strengths

What are the local assets that your destination can highlight? Destination assessment should be conducted to identify the strengths of a destination and determine the best tourism products based on the findings.

In our destination assessment for the Sierra de la Gigante region, Solimar and RED Sustainable Travel identified potential conservation models that leverage the region’s strengths in order to address conservation goals and provide economic opportunities for the local population.

Strengthen Local Capacity to Manage Tourism

Sustainable tourism management and operations need to equip local businesses with skills to succeed. Workforce development and training is therefore integral to a successful strategy.

To strengthen the capacity of the Ethiopia Sustainable Tourism Alliance (ESTA), Solimar conducted workshops and created materials to train personnel in using the necessary tools and activities to implement community tourism in Ethiopia.

Target High-Yield Market Segments

High visitor numbers aren’t inherently valuable for your destination. In sustainable tourism management and operations, it is important to serve the proper target markets. Fortunately, there has been a growth in the number of travelers who demand more responsible travel and have higher visitor expenditure.

The Namibia North American Destination Marketing Campaign targeted travelers who would most appreciate the country’s strong conservation and special interest selling points. These include curious conservationists and experience seekers. This is why a destination assessment of strengths is so important—you must know what you are marketing and to whom.

Use Guidelines to Limit Impact

Creating guidelines is important in sustainable tourism management and operations. It not only helps the destination preserve its ecological value, but also helps businesses limit their negative environmental and socio-cultural impacts. Educating visitors and locals on best-practices matters.

Solimar is part of the Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria (GSTC) Initiative , which fosters increased understanding of sustainable tourism practices and promotes the adoption of universal sustainable tourism principles.

Measuring tourism impacts is often perceived as a tedious and complicated task by some tourism professionals. Since tourism is integrated across numerous sectors, there are many aspects to consider when analyzing the results of tourism development. At the broadest level, tourism affects the economy through employment and investment. It also impacts the environment as many tourism destinations are in conservation areas, traveling requires creating carbon dioxide, and too many visitors can degrade natural wonders.

For these and many other reasons, measuring tourism impacts is actually one of most important practices in achieving successful sustainable tourism development. Here are some of the reasons behind its significance:

Measuring Tourism Impacts…

1. Helps in Conservation

Determining the economic, socio-cultural, and environmental impacts of tourism development will help in conservation because it can show the positive and negative effects.

Is tourism development helping in the protection and growth of wildlife? Is tourism development promoting the culture of indigenous peoples? Or is tourism development negatively exploiting the natural resources and cultures of the local population?

Measuring tourism impacts on our environment will help decision-makers in creating strategies that will support rather than harm conservation. Decision-makers can use the Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria (GSTC) to evaluate the impact of tourism on the local community, cultural heritage, and the environment. From this evaluation, they can then establish if they should implement stronger controls, support other initiatives, or correct harmful practices.

The GSTC Partnership was initiated by the Rainforest Alliance, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the United Nations Foundation, and the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) to promote and implement universal sustainable tourism principles around the world.

2. Spurs Investment

Sustainable tourism development often begins with investment from the government and private sector. To rationalize these investments, the government and the private sector need numbers from the tourism sector.

How many jobs is tourism creating, both directly and indirectly? How much of the gross domestic product (GDP) is from tourism? What is the potential of tourism in creating more jobs and in increasing the country’s GDP?

By measuring these important tourism metrics, investors will get the information and encouragement that they need to continue supporting sustainable tourism development.

The UNWTO, in partnership with the International Labor Organization (ILO) recently released a report on the best practices of measuring the impact of tourism on employment. This could be a helpful resource for those who want to increase employment on their communities.

3. Educates Tourists

Last year, at least one billion tourists traveled across the globe. That means one billion opportunities to teach about how tourism affects the world and how people can have more positive impacts on communities and the environment.

How much of a tourist’s expenditure go to the local economy? How can tourists reduce negative economic impacts, especially on protected areas and heritage sites? How are tourists getting involved with preservation after visiting a destination?

By measuring tourism impacts and sharing results with tourists, we can help them support sustainable tourism development. Solimar also wrote about the importance of tourism in today’s economy given that it is one of the largest sectors in the world.

Measuring tourism impacts is therefore crucial for sustainable tourism development. Having the numbers and the research results with us is a powerful tool for our industry.

Sustainable tourism, when done well, celebrates cultures, alleviates poverty, empowers women, enhances education, creates jobs, improves the wellbeing of local communities, and conserves natural resources. This is a cornerstone of Solimar International’s work.  Understanding these transformative effects is mostly intuitive. For example, sustainable tourism development often showcases local culture and employs local people in doing so—this alleviates poverty and increases the wellbeing of the community, which in turn creates revenue that can be reinvested in education. The association between sustainable tourism development and conservation, however, is indirect and less intuitive. Many people associate any form of development with a bulldozer. So how can sustainable tourism development actually conserve natural resources? The answer involves a bit of economics so hold on tight.

The Economics Behind Sustainable Tourism Development and Conservation

Let us envision a fictitious (and yes, impossible) tropical rainforest in the middle of the United States. A thriving sustainable tourism industry has developed around this rainforest, attracting thousands of people from all over the world. Then reports come out indicating the high probability of a large oil deposit under the jungle. The government begins plans to develop an oil field, but before doing so conducts a cost-benefit analysis. In this situation, the government is a benevolent social planner, therefore accepting or rejecting the project is determined by the equations below; where Bp is Private Benefit, Cp is Private Cost, and Cs is Social Cost.

BP – (CP+CS) > 0 è Accept the Project

BP – (CP+CS) < 0 èReject the Project

The private benefits and costs for the owner of the project (the government in this case) are simply calculated using projections of sales, prices, costs and so on. The social cost, however, is much more difficult to calculate. This is because it is extremely difficult to quantify the indirect benefits of a jungle. A large benefit of a rainforest is the ecological services it provides—crop pollination (bee habitat), maintenance of soil quality, carbon sequestration, conserving biodiversity, providing habitat, etc. New technology and methods to capture these indirect benefits are continually emerging. NASA recently launched a satellite equipped to map the earth’s forests in 3D. These new maps will allow scientists to better estimate the amount of carbon stored in trees and monitor forest degradation.

Again, these ecological services are indirect values. Given there is an established tourism industry that relies on the jungle as an attraction there are also direct values. How much revenue is being generated from the tourism industry? How many jobs? These values can easily be accounted for and calculated into the social cost. Developing sustainable tourism therefore increases the social cost which increases the likelihood of the oil project being rejected and protects the jungle from deforestation.

Real World Examples

Many of the projects that Solimar is involved with aim to develop sustainable tourism around national parks. Take for example, Solimar’s role in developing an eco-lodge to Bale Mountains National Park in Ethiopia. Solimar spent the first months of this project conducting extensive market research and visits to numerous Ethiopian destinations to determine which was most promising for eco-lodge investment. The clear winner was an area outside Bale Mountains National Park because of its pristine natural beauty and relatively low tourism numbers. Building an eco-lodge here taps into the region’s potential. As a result of this project, tourism in and exposure to the Bale Mountains National Park increased, which raised its economic value (social cost) too.

 In other projects, Solimar has worked with established sustainable tourism destinations to help promote and market them to the world. An example of this is our Nambia NADM campaign, where we pushed forward an innovative marketing campaign focused on increasing both arrivals from the North American market and the number of North American travel trade that offer tours and packages to Namibia. Again, effective marketing of Namibia as an ecological wonder has increased visitation to the country and in turn brought economic value to the land. Today, over 43% of Namibia’s surface area is under conservation management.

The task of measuring tourism impacts is often conducted by identifying certain economic indicators, such as the contribution to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) or the overall employment, and measuring their base before tourism, after a tourism project begins, and monitoring them as the project progresses.

With sustainable tourism development, we aim to manage the consequences of tourism in such a way to maintain a balance between its economic, environmental, and socio-cultural impacts. Therefore, it is important to identify environmental and socio-cultural indicators to measure as well.

Solimar has compiled a list of possible indicators that you can use in evaluating and measuring tourism impacts particularly environmental ones. Although this list is not comprehensive, these indicators are the most commonly used and can guide you in your initial tourism planning.

Effect on Air, Water, and Soil Quality

Tourism relies heavily on natural resources, so its impact on the environment is crucial when measuring tourism impacts. Ideally, tourism should be able to improve the quality of air, water, and soil in a destination. Some example questions to consider when measuring this indicator:

  • Has tourism been able to maintain the quality of water in the destination?
  • In places that promote pristine and endless strips of beaches, how clear is the water from coliform bacteria contamination?
  • Is there sufficient drinking water for the communities in the destination?

Sometimes, tourism businesses use up most of the water in a local area because of the needs of the tourists, such as providing showers in hotels. This transfers resources from the locals to the tourists and sustainable tourism developers should be wary of this.

Effect on Conservation Goals

At Solimar, we believe that tourism should be able to enhance and improve the conservation efforts in a destination. When measuring tourism impacts on conservation, use these guide questions to help you:

  • Is tourism helping in protecting wildlife and other environmental resources?
  • Has the number of endangered species increased or decreased?
  • Does tourism support forest regeneration and marine conservation?

Effect on Waste

Many tourist establishments generate a relatively higher volume of waste compared to the locals’ waste. Well-implemented waste management strategies are crucial to prevent negative impacts on the environment such as high levels of dangerous bacteria. Consider:

  • How much solid waste is generated by tourism?
  • Is there a proper waste management system to prevent negative environmental impacts?
  • What is the ratio of the tourism establishments waste compared to the locals?

Measuring tourism impacts using these environmental indicators is helpful in sustainable tourism planning as a guide in designing strategies to achieve the positive side of these indicators. Of course, your indicators will need to be customized to your destination.

Solimar has a thorough understanding of the indicator measurement practices and worked with various clients including the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), and the World Bank.

“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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