At Solimar International, we hold three virtual internship programs every spring, summer and fall that are dedicated to advancing future sustainable tourism industry leaders. In this blog, two of our Summer 2022 share their experiences working on different tourism development projects around the world.
1. Reflections from Isaac Herzog, student at Cornell University and Solimar Summer 2022 Intern:
My Relationship with Timor-Leste
Timor-Leste is a small country in the Pacific Ocean that many in the West have never heard of. Populated by many Austronesian peoples, the island of Timor already had rich traditions by the time it was colonized by the Dutch and Portuguese. After the country gained its independence from the Portuguese empire, Indonesia’s Suharto regime quickly stepped in and took over the country in a bloody war. Finally gaining independence in 2002, Timor-Leste is now a developing nation with a population of about 1.3 million people.
The nation is divided into 14 municipalities. One such division, Ataúro, is an island off the north coast of Dili, the capital city. Ataúro is unique in so many ways and has so much to teach the world. This summer in my internship at Solimar International, I helped the team support ATKOMA, a Destination Management Organization (DMO) based on Ataúro.
Although all I had heard about Timor-Leste before this summer, I was fascinated by the burgeoning nation as I learned more. How small nations’ economies function, what public infrastructure is like, the maritime history, etc. always interested me in regards to small nations, and Timor-Leste was no exception. So, when prompted in the internship application what area I would most like to work with, I jumped at the opportunity to work with Timor-Leste, learn as much as I could about the nation, and help in any way that I could.
Challenges Going In
Having never worked in tourism previously and having very little knowledge about Timor-Leste beforehand, I was ill-prepared for the realities of tourism on the island. Firstly, the island is incredibly small and sparsely populated. As it is one of the smaller provinces of an already small country, Ataúro’s population is around 10,000 people; and half are subsistence farmers. This means that half of Ataúro’s population is not considered to be “economically active” because they don’t have incomes and don’t, en masse, participate in markets (literal and economic). Instead, such folks grow, produce, kill, or catch their own food.
Secondly, there aren’t grocery stores, fast food chains, bars, or even really any shops. Most shopping on the island is done at the Beloi Market–the largest on the island–held every Thursday and Saturday. If not there, each village or community usually has markets, some artisanal store to sell handmade goods like baskets and pots, or else you’d have to know someone to make you what you need.
In short, the island functions differently from the life that many visitors come from. And indeed, that is so much of the appeal to visitors of Ataúro: the detachment from the world; the idyllic and untouched land; calm and relaxed days; no sounds of car horns.
The Solimar International Internship
With such an international focus, Solimar International is a truly virtual company with staff members connecting from around the world. This meant that my internship was done through Slack and Zoom. Throughout the summer, I sat in apartments, cafes, and park benches to do my work. Looking back, my internship naturally had several epochs, each more rewarding than the next.
First two weeks
To be expected, the first two weeks consisted of getting my sea legs, both for Solimar and Timor-Leste. When I was accepted into my internship, I was told I would work mostly with a company on Ataúro Island. After the first meeting, then, I spent several days doing Wikipedia dives, reading articles, and learning what there was to know about Timor Leste and Ataúro. The student that I am, I wanted to ensure that whatever work I produced for Solimar and ATKOMA would be properly informed, historically, culturally, linguistically, and otherwise. Plus, I elected to work with Timor Leste due to my interest, and I wanted to use this learning period to satiate my curiosity.
It was during this first week that I got a sense for the task that would be ahead of me. I found that there was in fact very little about Ataúro on the internet in the way of tourism. Most articles were either from ataurotourism.org, ATKOMA’s own site, or else Wikipedia. There were some scientific-catered pages, most discussing Ataúro’s hyper-biodiverse waters, but I could find very little travel advice. It was then clear to me why Solimar was hoping to have me aid with social media creation and blog writing. One of the most important tasks going forth was to improve ATKOMA’s presence online and to build its rapport.
After garnering a little background info on the country and island, I dove into meetings with the two women I would spend the rest of the summer working with. My two mentors, one who led my team of interns and the other who was heavily involved in ATKOMA, had a meeting with me to explain Solimar’s inner workings, what they wanted me to do this summer, and how they were going to support me. Feeling prepared, properly instructed, and pretty excited, I set out on my first tasks.
Continuing into the internship
Once I’d done some intro tasks, gotten to know my mentors, and learned the internal communication services, I was working daily in a coffee shop in my hometown. A significant portion of my work was blog writing, so each day I sat down at a cafe and wrote. I boosted ATKOMA’s social media presence as well, using Instagram and Facebook to improve their presence and recognition. At the same time, I chatted with a gentleman who’s been living on Ataúro for several years working as a dive instructor, hoping to hear a personal account of life on the island. I reached out to photographers via social media to hopefully increase our photo banks, as promoting the island is infinitely more effective if people can see its beauty.
Most rewarding in this middle period of my internship was sitting in on several decision-making Zoom calls and being a part of the mental calculus that Solimar made in our support of ATKOMA. The calls were attended by several of my superiors, the CEO of our company, and some members of ATKOMA, calling in from Ataúro. I found these calls very informative and rewarding, because while I had been effectively working for this local DMO, I finally got to hear some of their internal workings, learn about the nature of their business, their finances, and how Solimar interacts with its partners.
Throughout my internship, I fell increasingly in love with the work I was doing for Solimar and ATKOMA. Every day, I looked forward to going to my same cafe, getting my same drink, talking with my mentors, writing, posting, and problem-solving. Whether I was writing a blog on doing a homestay in Ataúro, posting on Instagram asking folks to comment their best experiences on the island, or researching payment gateways, every day was a thrill.
By the end, I had written a handful of blogs that I was really proud of, steadily increased ATKOMA’s social media presence, and been an omnipresent aid to my mentors (I’d like to think). As the final weeks of my internship came, I was moving back to my university for my final year, recruiting for my choral group, all the while working for Solimar. It was during these hectic weeks that I came to reflect on all that I’ve learned.
Outcomes from interning at Solimar International
Having never worked in tourism before, my knowledge of the industry was deepened significantly this summer. But, though I learned about sustainable tourism, how to support communities’ DMOs, and the reality of international funding for such projects, most of my takeaways from this internship were what I learned from ATKOMA, Ataúro, and Timor Leste.
From my own work with ATKOMA, I learned that small communities can be economically revitalized with tourism, all while still respecting native traditions. Ataúro’s small villages and communities have indubitably become more viable and brought folks out of poverty by welcoming tourists, all the while asking them to respect the land, water, biodiversity, and way of life.
I also learned small business planning from ATKOMA and policies for small economies from Ataúro. A small organization on a small island in a small country, there are a lot of challenges that the DMO faces: how to hire skilled workers, how to accept payments from abroad, and how to advise on travel when the infrastructure is poor. These and many other questions that ATKOMA asked itself (and Solimar) brought me more perspective about small businesses, which I know are skills to bring into my future.
Additionally, this intern cohort also taught me valuable skills going forth. My fellow interns exposed me to different writing styles; showed me how they balanced travel, life, and work (something I had to learn myself); and brought their different experiences and perspectives into our work.
Finally, it’s hard to overstate how influential and kind my two mentors were to me. Jenny and Chloe, both taught me so much about the industry, life after academics, how to balance life and work, and the importance of loving your work.
My internship with Solimar has been the most rewarding work I’ve put forth in my career thus far, and I very much hope to follow this career path in the future.
2. Reflections from Miles Rieker, student at UNC Chapel Hill and Summer 2022 Intern:
Upon applying for the Solimar internship, I knew very little about the company. I had taken a business course at my university the semester before, and one topic that stuck out to me was the subject of sustainability. At UNC, one of the focuses on sustainable businesses is the “Triple Bottom Line,” or people, planet, and profit. Businesses should run their operations with these three things in mind at all times.
Upon seeing the Solimar opportunity come across my LinkedIn, I was immediately drawn to the idea of sustainable tourism. Using my tourism and world travel experience, I thought I could bring a unique perspective to the Solimar team.
I was ready to dive right in and get started. The first project I worked on was a domestic project for the Inn and Tavern at Meander. It is a quaint, historical inn that has a real homey feel to it. I started by outlining the content plans for the year, and put together a PowerPoint on the topics that needed to be highlighted each month. I also focused on the target audience, and which demographics would respond to which strategy. This was a useful project for me, being a business major, and being able to see how a business breaks down their customers, and how they analyze potential patrons. It was useful to be on the planning side of things, and see how important it is to place an event at a certain time of the month, or during a certain season. It was important for me to see the value of having a detailed calendar and plan. Proposing those things to a committee for feedback can ensure the best possible results and a large reach to the target consumers.
Moving forward into the next project team I worked with, I was “stationed” in Liberia, working on a project that has not come into fruition just yet. Liberia is an interesting subject matter, based on its past. Struggling through a civil war, only to be ravaged by the Ebola pandemic and then Coronavirus, this country may have one of the weakest infrastructures in the world. Utilizing Liberia’s coast could be very effective in establishing a DMO. There are surf destinations, and quaint beach villages, just booming with potential. The first steps, though, include research with the end goal of finding agencies to partner with. Through this process, I was able to learn how to discern which agencies have the largest audience. From there, the team can decide which specific ones to partner with. I found this information very valuable, as I am pursuing a degree in business. One of the most important takeaways I have from this summer is that marketing your product or service is an essential process. If you cannot effectively read an audience, no profit will be made, and in this case, no positive impact can be made in Liberia.
The final project I assisted on was the Lewis and Clark National Historical Trail Experience. For this project, I was mainly choosing and compiling pictures for the user experience through Bandwango. As I stated in my presentation, this job is very important, because you must choose to represent the site in a positive light. It must draw customers in, as well as accurately depict the attraction. This points back to the theme of promotion and marketing. The site already exists, so the next step is gaining and retaining an audience. The best avenue to do this is through marketing and promotion on platforms like Bandwango. That way, patrons can see exactly which attractions they want to visit, and what each one has in store.
It was beneficial for me to see projects at each of their different stages. Meander was well established, but looking for improvements. Liberia was in the very early stages, and the LCNHT was very close to being completed. Each project was different, but shared similar tasks in the marketing and promotion realm. It was important for me to see that marketing is how you actually make the destination a true attraction. It was also eye opening to see the amount of jobs that creating a resort, for example, could bring into a community. Creating a destination does not only bring in cash flow to a country or community, but it also helps the citizens establish themselves in the world with a job and a place to live. Once these jobs are created, there can be almost a “trickle up” effect where the infrastructure is built up through the people.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Solimar, and learned a lot about running a sustainable business. Even in writing my blog about the Blue Economy, I was able to see the potential that sustainable tourism has to not only change a few countries here and there, but to change the entire world. Using the environment as a renewable resource, instead of taking the resources at an unhealthy rate is not only beneficial to the environment, but the community around the specific area. I truly do believe that Solimar as a company prides itself on thriving in the three areas of the Triple Bottom Line: People, Planet, and Profit.
Are you interested in joining our next internship cohort? Learn more here.