Solimar & Geotourism
Alabama as well as Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi partnered with National Geographic and Solimar to promote Geotourism development. This partnership contributed to the region’s competitiveness as a tourism destination by facilitating collaboration between local business owners, governments, interest groups and residents, helping market the region’s sustainable tourism assets.
Solimar has managed activities such as: the establishment of the Stewardship Council and the development of marketing tools and strategies that contribute to the ongoing promotion of the unique region. The Geotourism MapGuide presents the U.S. Gulf Coast States region to the world through an online interactive map, mobile application and print map.
The Geotourism MapGuide focuses on authentic local attractions and service providers, and secures increased market visibility for smaller local businesses and attractions, which adds to the socio-economic benefits generated by tourism in the region.
Geotourism is defined as “tourism that sustains or enhances the geographical character of a place – its environment, culture, aesthetics, heritage, and the well-being of its residents.”
Geotourism involves regional communities by providing the visitor with an authentic, enriching experience and connects tourists with local culture, traditions, offering them in-depth opportunities to enjoy the area’s unique natural beauty and biodiversity.
Geotourism also benefits the environment by encouraging a destination stewardship that keeps growth to sustainable levels and limits negative impacts such as overcrowding and resource pollution and benefits residents by promoting local services and employment.
The Tuskegee Human & Civil Rights Multicultural Center
The Tuskegee Center is a commendable example of what we are trying to promote with the Geotourism program. The National Geographic Society, in collaboration with the Alabama Tourism Department, unveiled a new four-state Geotourism project. As a result, some 341 Alabama listings are featured on the U.S. Gulf Coast States Geotourism interactive website.
The tourism project started more than a year ago with a call for organizations and citizens to nominate local points of interest. More than 100 Alabamians submitted nominations that included sites and attractions unique to their area such as local restaurants, wildlife and scenic trails, bed and breakfasts, historic attractions, fishing destinations, museums and art galleries. In Tuskegee, the sites featured include the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site, Tuskegee University and the Tuskegee Human and Civil Rights Multicultural Center.
The Tuskegee Human and Civil Rights Multicultural Center preserves and presents the stories about the history of Native, European and African Americans in Tuskegee.
The Center was established in 1997, originally to serve as a permanent memorial to the victims and survivors of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. The center showcases the historic past of Tuskegee in Macon County. The center represents one historic place, three historic cultures and the many tragedies and triumphs of the American South.
22 Geotourism MapGuide projects have been completed or are underway in 14 U.S. states and 12 countries. More than 3 million MapGuides have been printed and distributed in hard copy, and 13 interactive websites have been created to promote sustainable travel to some of the world’s most important tourism destinations.
Because of National Geographic and Solimar International’s commitment to community-based tourism development, the Geotourism approach has the potential to succeed where many other tourism strategies have not.
This summer, Jember Limited’s General Manager Guy Levene and the Ethiopia Wildlife Conservation Authority’s (EWCA) Director General Dr. Kifle Argaw signed a concession agreement for the construction of an eco-lodge in the Bale Mountains National Park (BMNP). This momentous occasion – only the third concession agreement ever signed by EWCA -represented the culmination of several years of work for Solimar International within the USAID-funded Ethiopian Sustainable Tourism Alliance (ESTA) project.
The process began in mid-2009, when Solimar began conducting extensive market research and visits to numerous Ethiopian destinations to determine which site was most promising for eco-lodge investment. The clear winner was the 850-square mile BMNP, which contains stunning Afro-Alpine landscapes and numerous endemic mammal and bird species. Despite its great potential, tourism numbers to the park had been low due to difficult access and a lack of quality accommodations. Although a paved road from Addis Ababa was under construction (it has recently been completed), it was clear that efforts to develop tourism that could incorporate local communities would have limited impact until the destination had an anchor property.
Once the destination was chosen, Solimar’s goal was then to attract an investor who shared our values in terms of environmental conservation and community participation. To be able to make a strong case to potential investors, we undertook a feasibility analysis and created both a detailed business plan and investment prospectus. We disseminated this information to select investors and presented at various tourism and business conferences in the U.S. and Ethiopia.
After pursuing several strong leads, we ultimately decided to endorse the UK-based private investment group led by Guy Levene because of its strong commitment to building a high-quality lodge that will have minimal impact on the environment and bring significant benefits to neighboring communities. The endorsement was followed by support that included facilitation of an Environmental Impact Assessment and assistance through the concession negotiation process.
The groundbreaking for Bale Mountain Lodge took place in November. The eco-lodge, to be built in a stunning location within the Harena Forest, will have a total of 15 units including several tree-houses. Among several innovative approaches that Jember will take to reduce its footprint will be a hybrid micro-hydro and solar energy system. Jember’s initial investment for the lodge will be $1.2 million. The lodge is slated to soft open this spring, and be fully functional by October 2013.
The Batwa Trail, located in the Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, offers a nature walk tour that introduces visitors to the Batwa culture.
Batwa are indigenous communities who previously inhabited the Bwindi and Mgahinga National Parks in Uganda. A marginalized hunter-gatherer tribe, the Batwa have a wealth of knowledge about the forests and maintain a rich non-destructive heritage with the forests. The current population of Batwa people in Uganda is estimated at only 6,705. In the 1990s, when the Uganda government creation the Mgahinga and Bwindi national parks to protect biodiversity and endangered mountain gorillas, the Batwa people were evicted from the forest. They now live in adjacent agricultural communities as landless squatters.
On June 27, 2012, the Uganda Ministry of Tourism, USAID Mission to Uganda, Uganda Wildlife Authority and other private and public sector representatives commissioned several new developments for the Batwa Trail. These planned improvements include a shorter trail, artistic cave shelter, lunch shed and improved solar lighting worth over $31,000.
Roughly 2,500 tourists visit Mgahinga Park each year. In addition, 206 tourists have visited the Batwa Trail. Over a 2-month period, Batwa cultural trail had registered 22 (6.3% of all tourists) paying tourists. With investment in volcano hiking infrastructure and increased marketing, tourism numbers are expected to increase 50% by 2014.
There is great optimism that this revamped trail, a unique initiative that allows the Batwa tribe access to the land from which they were evicted in the 1990s, will allow tourists to explore the cultural site of Africa’s last forest people and add about $12,500 a year to the tourism revenue with 50% of it going to the Batwa people.
This project has been jointly developed by Solimar International under USAID STAR, the USFS, the International Gorilla Conservation Program (IGCP), Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), Greater Virunga Trans-boundary Collaboration (GVTC), United Organization of Batwa Development in Uganda (UOBDU), and Kisoro District Local Government.
On May 23, 2012, Solimar International kicked off its 13 month project: Promotion des Circuits Touristiques Integrant L’artisanat (Promotion of Tourism Circuits that Integrate Handcrafts, funded by the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC). This project aims to increase the convergence between the craft and tourism industries and increase revenue through the creation of tourism circuits in the Medinas of Fes and Marrakech. Since the project started, the team has been busy meeting with local stakeholders and working to organize workshops to introduce the project to the different regions. The team held its first workshop in Fes on June 22, 2012, and the second workshop in Marrakech on July 9, 2012.
For the June 22 workshop, the project required a minimum of 50 people in attendance, but there was an amazing turnout of 140 people. The State Secretary for Crafts, the Director of APP, about 15 journalists and other distinguished guests were present. The Chief of Party, Olivier Messmer, gave a very impressive presentation on the goals and objectives of the project, what the tourism circuits for Fes were and how the project would roll out its activities over the next 13 months. We have received a lot of positive feedback from APP as well as the Ministry of Crafts for this opening workshop. Special thanks to Shawndra, Olivier and the entire Morocco team for putting together such a successful workshop. We look forward to continued success for the next workshop in Marrakech!
This year marks Solimar’s fifth year working on the Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria – a groundbreaking set of voluntary guidelines created to provide an international understanding of sustainable tourism. The long term goal: strengthen consumer confidence in the tourism industry’s sustainability claims and provide a clear path for tourism business seeking more sustainability in their offers.
This movement has come a long way since 2007 when Solimar was first contracted to analyze nearly 3000 tourism criteria from around the world. After the original GSTC Criteria for hotels and tour operators were launched in 2008, the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) came to life out of the ad hoc coalition of partners such as the United Nations Foundation, UNEP, Sabre/Travelocity and Rainforest Alliance that helped finance and provide guidance to the initiative. Solimar has built websites, managed social media outreach, developed GSTC indicators and supported the ongoing technical review and revision of the GSTC Criteria as the Council has grown from a network of less than 50 to its current 200-strong membership.
Throughout 2011, the GSTC has focused on building a series of recognition processes that will add additional strength to sustainable tourism standards and certification programs by ensuring that they meet global best practices. Standards –may apply to receive GSTC recognition, and several – including those from the Rainforest Alliance, EarthCheck, and Costa Rican Tourism Board have done so. Certification programs with GSTC-recognized standards can then apply to become GSTC Approved. The first GSTC Approved standard is set to be announced soon.
This year, the GSTC is moving into its next phase as they develop a set of global criteria focused on sustainable destination management. Solimar Chaiman, Don Hawkins, has been involved in the development of the criteria set to launch in December. Like the criteria for hotels and tour operators, the Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria for Destinations will serve as an aspirational set of guidelines for places interested in conserving and strengthening their human, cultural, and environmental resources. Five pilot destinations, including the Okavango Delta and Lanzarote have volunteered to pilot test the criteria and ensure that they are attainable and useful in a real context.
The GSTC Criteria have proven to be a useful tool for Solimar’s projects in Bolivia and the Western Balkans where they provide a previously unavailable starting point to assess current sustainable tourism efforts and a clear path for operator training, product management, and targeted marketing.
The GSTC hosted its 3rd Annual Meeting this week in Washington, DC, featuring an impressive line up of speakers from the travel industry.