A First Hand Look Into Sustainable Tourism in Timor-Leste and Indonesia

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.

“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

Contact us

  • Address

    641 S Street NW, Third Floor
    Washington, DC 20001
  • Phone

    (202) 518-6192