For years, Solimar has worked to promote sustainable growth through tourism in destinations around the globe. With one special project, we’ve had the opportunity to turn to our own back yard and look at how the tried and tested programs employed in the deserts of Africa, the mountains of Eastern Europe, and the jungles of Central America can be deployed in a culturally rich and environmentally fragile location in the United States.
The Black Belt Region of Alabama stretches through 13 counties and has historically been an agriculture center for the state. It has also weathered a sordid history of political disenfranchisement and violent racism. As a result, the region faces severe challenges of poverty. The small community of Gee’s Bend, located within the Black Belt, is a community of just over 200 people located an hour away from the civil rights flashpoint of Selma.
People have been traveling to Gee’s Bend for years to appreciate their scenic location on the Alabama River, visit their famous quiltmakers, and experience a sliver of southern culture that is still unique, palpable, and authentic.
Solimar has worked with Sustainable Rural Regenerative Enterprises for Families (SURREF) through a Ford Foundation grant to build a new community-based tourism enterprise that will maximize tourism revenues by offering – for the first time – tourism packages that encourage visitors to stay longer, spend more, and truly appreciate all that this small destination has to offer.
Nearly complete, a destination development strategy has been designed with Solimar’s guidance to create itineraries that capture the culture elements of Gee’s Bend and market them to an eager market. Highlights will include a hands-on interactive experience with Gee’s Bend world-famous quilters, a riverside lunch of local favorites catered by a local chef using local produce, and a guided walking tour of key historic sites including a spot visited by Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.
The community-based tourism development strategy is a culmination of nearly 6 months of interactive workshops and brainstorming sessions with regional destination managers, local tour operators, and over 100 community members.
The sales, marketing, and operations of the prescribed destination management company will all be handled by Gee’s Bend residents trained in according to Solimar’s enterprise development training process.
The tours are set to launch to a pilot audience at the end of the year.
In November 2011, Solimar began working on a proposal for the AFM6 project from the L’Agence du Partenariat pour le Progrès (APP), a Moroccan government agency that was created by the Prime Minister’s office for the execution of Morocco’s 5-year, $697.5 million dollar award from the Millennium Challenge Corporation. The Solimar team worked tirelessly for 6 weeks to produce a well-executed 225-page proposal. On March 2, 2012, Solimar was officially notified by the APP that we had won the AFM6 project. The 13-month project titled Promotion des Circuits Touristiques Integrant L’artisanat (Promotion of Tourism Circuits that Integrate Handcrafts), aims to create and promote tourism routes in the medinas of the historic cities of Fes and Marrakech. Both Fes and Marrakech are imperial cities in Morocco and the medina in Fes is a UNESCO world heritage site. Marrakech is probably most famously known for its central square, Place Djemma el Fna.
The AFM6 project will create six tourism routes in each city that will integrate historically and culturally significant buildings, interpretive craft centers and artisan workshops. The routes will feature orientation signs for guidance and interpretive panels that will be easily identifiable and readable by both domestic and foreign visitors.
Aid to Artisans, Solimar’s technical partner for this project, will provide assistance with the craft interpretation component of the project and help create the content for interpretive panels as well as content for other promotional materials for the routes.
By the end of the project, the team aims to achieve the following five objectives:
1) Increase the number of tourists who participate in tours
2) Increase average spending of tourists in craft products while on the tour
3) Increase the satisfaction and interest of tourists for Moroccan craft
4) Increase use of tours by tour guides and travel agencies
5) Increase the number of artisans linked to the tours
This project is scheduled to kick off on May 23. This will be Solimar’s third project in Morocco. We hope to continue to have a strong presence in the country in the future.
We recently told you about the launch of the geotourism mapguide program in Bocas del Toro, Panama. The Solimar team has been hard at work for a few months getting ready for the official call for nominations, which began June 1st.
The Bocas Geotourism Stewardship Council (GSC) began with 7 members and now has 13 active members, due in large part to the efforts of the local team conducting individual presentations about the project. The council will steer the site nomination gathering and vetting process. The council now includes the Mayor of Bocas, the Environmental Unit of the Municipality, the Smithsonian Institute, the local Tourism Chamber, local TV and newspaper representatives and local hotel, surf shop and dive center owners.
Several members of the Bocas GSC have donated television, radio and newspaper advertising space to help promote the upcoming site nomination website launch. The local billingual newspaper has also donated space for an article on the Geotourism Program in every issue. So far two articles on the upcoming program have run in that local newspaper.
Solimar’s local coordinators and GSC members have also conducted over 60 presentations to 79 business promoting the site nomination period and raising local awareness about the geotourism program. At least 10 Bocas site nominations will be ready and loaded onto the Go Blue Central America site nomination website for the launch on June 1st.
Twenty-nine additional businesses have signed letters of interest committing to participate in the Geotourism prorgram. Many more local businesses have given a verbal commitment to participate. These businesses have expressed great enthusiasm about receiving the tourism sustainability best practices training as a part of the Geotourism Program. To learn more about this program or to nominate a business, please visit the website:
Earlier this week, Ashley discussed our efforts in Uganda to boost conservation through tourism in national parks. One place where we have worked to accomplish this goal is in Rwenzori. Here we developed new tourism products to boost visitation and revenue, which is vital to conservation. Increased tourism has also helped provide new sources of income for the local community.
The Rwenzori Mountains, the fabled “Mountains of the Moon,” lie in western Uganda along the Uganda-Congo border. The Rwenzori Mountains National Park was established in 1991 and was recognized as aUNESCO World Heritage site in 1994 and as an international Ramsar Wetland site in 2008. The national park hosts a variety of species of wildlife that include 70 mammals and 217 birds, including 19 species that are endemic to the region, as well as some of the world’s rarest plants.
The Rwenzoris are a world-class hiking and mountaineering destination that offer multi-day treks around and up to the mountains peaks, which are among the highest in Africa, and one of only three locations that hosts glaciers on the equator. For those who prefer something a little less strenuous, neighboring communities also offer nature walks, cultural performances and accommodation. Despite this, the number of visitors to the region is limited, due in part to limited tourism activities and facilities offered in the area.
To address this gap, Solimar’s USAID-funded project “Sustainable Tourism in the Albertine Rift” with support from US Forest Service, and in partnership with ECOTRUST, the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) and Geolodges, worked to improve the tourism products being offered in and around the mountain to promote greater visitation to this incredible destination.
The New Rwenzori Mountains Visitor Information Center is a multi-function facility next to the National Park, providing information and services for visitors to the region. The Center offers information about the history and ecology of the mountains and their people; it also has space for UWA briefings and registration before entering the park, a restaurant and a craft shop. The Visitor Information Center will allow people traveling to the region to learn more about the National Park and the mountain, its people and their culture.
Solimar and our partners supported the Visitor Center through funding and technical assistance in the development of the building and the interpretive information within it. The Visitor Center is also paired with a private lodge concession that offers accommodations and a restaurant in partnership with the local community for travelers to the park.
The New Mahooma Nature Trail is a 28 km loop-trail starting and ending at the main entrance to the park. Solimar, with support from the US Forest Service and in partnership with UWA, developed the trail as a way to diversify the options available to visitors to the region, which before hand only offered long treks into the park. The trail traverses the lower slopes of the mountains culminating at Lake Mahooma where the trail joins the existing ‘Central Circuit’ trail to return to the park gate. The entire circuit could be completed in 1-2 nights, or parts of it as a day hike.
We hope that the addition of these new tourism products will help increase tourism to the mountains. And even more importantly, help increase revenues for the people of the region as well as support the park in their ongoing conservation efforts.
In February, Solimar began working in Bocas del Toro, a Panamanian archipelago located in the Caribbean near the Costa Rican border. It is one of the main tourism destinations in Panama, but also a biological hotspot for flora and fauna.
Close to the main island, Isla Colón, is Dolphin Bay, where large populations of dolphins live year round. They prefer the calm water of the Bay for mating and raising their offspring, which makes Dolphin Bay an attractive destination for dolphin spotting. Bluff Beach is located in Isla Colon boasts a large population of Leatherback and Hawksbill Turtles. The turtles come to nest every year between February and July – always returning to nest on the beach where they were born.
Bocas del Toro is also home to the Pygmy Sloth and the Escudo Hummingbird, named after the Escudo de Veraguas Island. Another interesting endemic species is the Red Frog, a very bright amphibian that lives in the archipelago. There are approximately 60 sub-species of frogs that live on the islands – all identified by vivid colors. From Isla Colon, you can take a five-minute boat ride to Isla Bastimentos where you can find a different colored frog!
The culture in the islands is also as unique as the wildlife. The local population speaks Spanish, but also Guari Guari, which is very similar to English including variations on the accents of certain words. The territory called Comarca of Ngäbe- Bugle is home to two of the largest indigenous ethnic groups in Panama. They have a very rich culture and extensive knowledge about the local forest. These groups also host several community-based tourism projects.
Solimar, together with National Geographic and the Management of Aquatic Resources and Alternative Development Program, hopes to highlight the rich biodiversity and culture of these islands by developing a Geotourism Website that properly tells the story of this magical place. The information for the Website will be provided entirely by the local people. With support from a Geotourism Council, which will be formed by community members involved with the tourism industry, this Website will strive to unite people from the entire region in proudly showcasing Bocas del Toro to the world!
Beginning June 1st, residents of Bocas del Toro will be able to start contributing information about their destination to the Website. We look forward to sharing the finished Website with you in the coming months. Hopefully it will prove to be a great travel planning resource for visitors.