Supporting Global Development through Sustainable Tourism

Johnny Cay, a small Colombian island in the Caribbean, faces significant conservation challenges. Although the park is a protected area, currently no license system or code of conduct exists for the tour operators who bring tourists to Johnny Cay from nearby San Andres. This lack of a tourism management plan has led to negative environmental consequences on the island, which in turn jeopardizes the long-term sustainability of businesses operating in Johnny Cay Regional Park.

Solimar has recently completed a Sustainable Tourism Strategic Plan for the park. The plan supports conservation and business development in Johnny Cay Regional Park by identifying conservation threats, creating a plan to mitigate those threats, and implementing sustainable tourism best practices.

Principal conservation threats include environmental degradation, mainly pollution, both on the island and within the surrounding waters. The island is also losing its cultural identity and turning into a daytime party spot, leading to an abundance of alcohol consumption and diminishing authentic cultural interaction. Operations must become more conservation-focused if tourism businesses hope to use Johnny Cay Regional Park as part of their long-term business strategy.

Johnny Cay Regional Park Caribbean Colombia
Johnny Cay Regional Park

The Sustainable Tourism Strategic Plan addresses conservation threats by employing five specific strategies over the course of three years:

1. Creation of a Sustainable Tourism Department within Coralina (The Organization for the Sustainable Development of the San Andres, Providencia, and Santa Catalina Archipelago).

This department will ensure that businesses comply with specific operational standards while operating within the park. The department will also develop training programs, implement environmental education programs, and act as a link between Coralina and tourism associations on the island.

2. Develop a Sustainable Tourism Certification Program within Johnny Cay Regional Park

This program will serve as a tool for setting operating standards and increasing sustainability awareness among local stakeholders. The program will provide best practices and codes of conduct for businesses and use the implementation of these practices as a filter to determine who can operate within the park. Businesses will be encouraged to gradually implement best practices and will receive recognition upon successful implementation. Businesses will also receive training related to different strategies for improving their product offerings. Ideally, this will serve as a pilot program for the region with possible extensions on the nearby islands of San Andres, Santa Catalina, and Providencia in the future.

3. Provide a Business Support Program for tourism businesses operating within the park

A relatively low standard of technical business knowledge emerged through the project's initial assessment process. This negatively impacted total revenues and product quality while poor marketing limited the ability for businesses to attract new clients. A business support program, run through Coralina, has been proposed to provide training in business planning, marketing, and monitoring and evaluation. A competition has also been proposed through which locals will develop their own business plans and compete for initial funding based on plan quality. Solimar launched a similar business plan and fundraising program with success on neighboring islands.

Sustainable Tourism Training
Solimar's business development training

4. Develop a Communication Strategy to increase cooperation between tourism businesses and Coralina

Improving communication among local residents, tourists, businesses, Coralina, travel agents, and national tourism entities will be vital to the success of the sustainable tourism strategic plan. This communication strategy hopes to strengthen conservation efforts by ensuring that residents and visitors understand that Johnny Cay is a nationally-recognized regional park. The goal is to invoke a sense of pride within locals and operators to foster a culture of conservation. Additionally, the communication strategy aims to facilitate a smoother communication process between businesses and other entities while keeping businesses up-to-date on the implementation of the overall sustainable tourism strategic plan.

5. Develop a system for tourism businesses to pay a concession fee for operating within the park

The plan calls for this implementation to occur in year 3, after the above strategies have had time to take hold. Each business applying for a concession will have their tax calculated based on their financial projections. A maximum tariff will be established and businesses will have to comply with certain standards in order to apply. Very clear communication and successful implementation strategies 1-4 will be vital to establishing the concession system.

Johnny Cay faces serious conservation issues that threaten the long-term viability of its corresponding tourism economy. However, with the proper strategy and training, these negative consequences can be reversed.

If developed and managed properly, a sustainable tourism strategy can aid conservation efforts. A destination's natural environment,often the catalyst for tourism development in the first place, must be preserved to sustain tourism in the long run. Part I of this article discussed the first three of Solimar's six models that link tourism to conservation:

Butterfly conservation
  • Improve Tourism Operations and Guidelines
  • Increase Tourism Awareness and Constituencies
  • Increase Income Diversification

Here are three additional ways that tourism can assist a destination's natural conservation efforts:

4. Increase Monitoring and Research

This model supports conservation by increasing the presence of guides, visitors, and researchers in critical areas where environmental degradation occurs. Two main strategies arise:

a.) Increase the Role of Local Residents in Monitoring and Research

Local residents often participate in conservation efforts by forming patrols or gaining employment as research assistants. Coastal residents can conduct nightly beach patrols to prevent the poaching of sea turtle eggs or illegal fishing. Tourism stakeholders can commit funding to these patrols or commission research projects with local residents as assistants. Execution of this strategy often depends on vital support from NGOs. By playing a role in monitoring and research, local residents gain awareness of conservation issues and form a deeper attachment to the local natural environment.

Solimar tourism training in Ethiopia
Tourism training for local residents in Ethiopia

b.) Increase the Role of Visitors in Monitoring and Research

'Voluntourism' increases in popularity every year. Tourists increasingly seek travel through which they can learn about a cause while making a positive impact on their chosen travel destination. Tourists can sign up for long-term stays at ecolodges or engage in direct conservation efforts through National Parks or private businesses offering such experiences.

5. Increase Tourism-Generated Conservation Financing

Most conservation professionals agree that increased funding would help their efforts. If tourism can increase the amount of funding available to conservation-related businesses and organizations, reliance upon donations decreases and the whole operation becomes more sustainable. This model involves four strategies:

a.) Utilize Sustainable Tourism Profits to Support Conservation Activities

This should be seen as investing in a destination's long-term future. The natural environment often draws tourism to an area in the first place, so investing in the future of that environment enhances the likelihood of long-term sustainable tourism. Examples of profit reinvestment include increased monitoring and research, hosting 'volontourists,' or replacing less efficient equipment with new, more eco-friendly equipment. Solimar has recently worked with The Peak Park, Colombia to develop a business model that will support the island's conservation efforts.

Solimar Peak Park Colombia
Peak Park, Colombia

b.) Develop Travel Philanthropy Programs

Creating programs that provide a reliable way for visitors to donate can greatly aid conservation efforts. This strategy involves several steps: developing visitor appreciation of the site's resources, increasing visitor understanding of the threats to those resources, fostering visitor understanding of efforts to mitigate those threats, and finally, presenting the visitor a reliable way to donate to those efforts.

c.) Develop Conservation-Themed Brands and Merchandise

Many National Parks and conservation organizations sell t-shirts, mugs, hats, and other merchandise. A simple, easily identifiable logo with clear text should be used on merchandise as well as websites, publications, and news releases. The WWF and their panda logo provide a good example. Publicizing details about how merchandise sales lead to conservation can encourage sales.

World Wildlife Federation Balloon Brazil
WWF's logo is identifiable and marketable

d.) Promote Mandatory or Voluntary Protected Area Entrance/User Fees

Visitors often have to pay a mandatory fee to use a protected area. Parks can sell daily, weekly, monthly, seasonal, or yearly passes. Sometimes fees correspond to an activity undertaken in the park so entrance may be one price while an additional fee may apply for fishing or camping. These fees can be used to hire more guides or rangers to protect the park or to increase the availability of interpretation within the park.

Yellowstone Park South Entrance
South Entrance to Yellowstone National Park

6. Increase Conservation Partnerships:

Increased cooperation between local residents, protected areas, NGOs, and private business can accelerate conservation efforts. When communities can share in the economic benefits of a sustainable tourism strategy, the likelihood of effective long-term partnerships increases. Solimar increased conservation partnerships between the public and private sectors with great success in Uganda. This model involves two main strategies:

a.) Developing Partnerships between Protected Areas, NGOs, and Universities

Attracting researchers from NGOs or universities brings revenue to protected areas through the provision of food, lodging, and other services. The research itself builds a more thorough understanding of the natural processes taking place and can inform future conservation efforts. The Tiputini Biodiversity Station in Ecuador often hosts researchers for months at a time while bringing in large student groups for 2-3 day tours and hikes. Many of these efforts develop through a partnership with the Universidad San Francisco de Quito (USFQ).

b.) Developing Partnerships between Protected Areas and Communities

Concession agreements, which allow local businesses to operate within protected areas, are becoming more widespread. This creates a financial incentive for local residents to engage in sustainable tourism practices. As business flourishes, commitment to the sustainable management of the protected area arises.

Destinations seeking sustainable solutions to conservation issues should employ the models and strategies listed above. Download Solimar International's Tourism and Conservation Toolkit to explore these ideas further.

Solimar's Six Models that Link Tourism to Conservation, Part I

One of the ways that tourism benefits destinations is by augmenting conservation efforts. After conducting an analysis of both internal and partner projects, Solimar has identified six principal sustainable tourism models that link tourism to conservation:

1. Improve Tourism Operations and Guidelines:

This model emphasizes limiting or reversing the negative consequences on nature that can result from tourism. There are three principal strategies for improving tourism operations and guidelines to promote conservation efforts:

sea turtle nesting
Signage marking a sea turtle nest

a. Promote Sustainable Tourism Guidelines with Visitors

By promoting a 'code of conduct', destinations can ensure that visitors, for example, do not leave trash, pick endangered flora, or use flash photography where it might be harmful or startling to wildlife. It is important that these codes of conduct are communicated effectively through signage, pamphlets, interpretive guides, or even on websites and social media so visitors have an understanding of conservation before they arrive. Myanmar, new to hosting significant numbers of tourists, provides a great example of a visitor code of conduct with their 'do's and don'ts' campaign.

b. Promote Sustainable Tourism Guidelines within the Travel Industry

Sustainable fishing Bangladesh
Sustainable fishing in Bangladesh

By promoting effective guidelines within the travel industry, local businesses and organizations can work together to limit their impact on the natural environment. Agreeing upon certain standards, preferably before a destination attracts large numbers of tourists, can maintain the natural beauty of an area before it's too late. For example, businesses and organizations can work together to establish best practices for responsible seafood harvesting, responsible souvenir gathering, and responsible boating practices. Solimar International worked extensively with businesses and organizations in Bocas del Toro, Panama to guide the establishment of acceptable practices related to natural conservation.

 

c. Promote Sustainable Tourism Guidelines within Protected Areas

Promoting conservation efforts within protected areas requires significant interaction from a wide range of stakeholders, both public and private. Example guidelines to follow may include limiting camping to select areas within a park or limiting the number of fish to be taken from rivers or lakes each day. Once a plan has been formulated, effective promotion is imperative to the success of the plan.

2. Increase Tourism Awareness and Constituencies:

This model moves beyond simple education about tourism impacts to emphasize the active role that both visitors and residents can play in conservation efforts. This model incorporates three principal strategies to augment conservation efforts:

a. Increase Awareness and Conservation Support of Local Residents

environmental education class
Credit: George Gentry US Fish and Wildlife

It is important that conservation efforts begin with locals, as residents are as much of a conservation threat as tourists. Lack of awareness, lack of economic alternatives, and long-standing traditions are often reasons locals engage in damaging practices such as unsustainable extraction of resources. Ways to increase awareness and reverse damaging actions include teaching environmental education classes with local groups or organizing a local festival to celebrate the very resource being damaged. In Latin America, sea turtle educational classes and festivals have been organized to raise awareness about the importance of sea turtle conservation and the damaging effects of poaching their eggs. 

b. Increase Awareness and Conservation Support of Visitors

Guides are vital to informing visitors about threats to conservation and explaining to the visitors how they can help whether that be through a donation or "adoption" programs. Programs such as these can help visitors develop an attachment to an area, increasing the likelihood of a donation, and also to spread the word about the importance of conservation when they go home.

c. Link Benefits of Sustainable Tourism to the Community as a Whole

As local residents see benefits from sustainable tourism increase, the likelihood of long-term sustainable practices increases, too. Direct beneficiaries include tour guides, hotel managers, and chefs while indirect beneficiaries include family members of direct beneficiaries as well as operators of ancillary services such as construction companies or grocery stores. Non-employment-based ways the tourism industry can benefit communities includes the organization of local clean-up events, improving sanitary services, or hosting volunteers.

3. Increase Income Diversification

If local residents realize sustainable tourism presents a livelihood, they are more likely to behave according to sustainable tourism principles. Two main strategies for assisting conservation evolve according to this model:

a. Target Resource Extractors with Sustainable Tourism Employment

It may seem counterintuitive, but poachers can become optimal tour guides. Poachers often know a lot about a particular animal and can share stories and knowledge on a unique level. "Reformed" poachers often provide a unique human interest story as tourists are very interested in how and why their behavior changed. Resource extractors are much more likely to change if tourism provides an increased wage through tips, salary, or a year-end profit sharing program.

artificial reef creation diving
Artificial reef creation

b. Developing Tourism Products that Directly Mitigate a Conservation Threat

An optimal situation occurs when new products, jobs, and revenues develop and directly support conservation efforts. Local residents can create arts and crafts out of old newspaper, cans, bottles or other upcycling methods and sell them to visitors, eliminating solid waste and creating revenue simultaneously. Artificial coral reef creation has been effective in attracting divers and photographers away from susceptible natural coral reefs, where damage from tourists is common.

The Global Sustainable Tourism Council provides a framework for destinations seeking to develop a sustainable tourism strategy. Many of their guidelines apply to the conservation-related ideas discussed in this post. For a more detailed look at these tourism conservation models, be sure to download Solimar's Tourism and Conservation Toolkit. Check back soon for Part of 2 Solimar's Six Models that Link Tourism to Conservation.

Mauritius beach
Mauritius - a destination where Solimar has conducted tourism conservation projects

As Earth Day took place this week, it's only natural to think about how tourism is used to support conservation. When done sustainably, tourism serves as a powerful tool to support conservation of the ecosystems upon which it depends. In this spirit, Solimar has collaborated with a large number of hotels, tour operators and destinations to help them create a tourism product that supports conservation. Here's a lot at five of those destinations:

1. Bhutan

Recently, Solimar received a request from the government of Bhutan to help implement cultural heritage projects in the country's villages. When developed correctly, cultural heritage products can increase revenue to rural villages that can directly support cultural heritage preservation. During the project, which runs until August 2015, Solimar is conducting a comprehensive assessment of the tourism potential of Bhutan's villages and prepare a report which includes information about which villages have the greatest potential for tourism development. Culture-based tourism products will be developed by the creation of profitable enterprises and visitor experiences that enhance cultural preservation and communities.

2. Southern Tanzania

Solimar has also been contracted to create a master plan for conservation for conservation tourism development in southern Tanzania. Southern Tanzania is home to most of the country's elephants, making it a lucrative tourist destination, although it is relatively undiscovered. The development of sustainable tourism in southern Tanzania is likely to raise revenue for conservation while discouraging poaching and forest degradation that pose a threat to the region.

Solimar is conducting a field assessment of tourism circuits, issues and opportunities in the region and examining the potential impact of tourism on conservation. Following the assessment, a master plan containing analysis and recommendations will be submitted that should result in the development of conservation-friendly tourism in southern Tanzania.

3. Verde Valley Geotourism Program

A long running project, Solimar is collaborating with the National Geographic Society Maps Division to implement a sustainable destination program in the Verde Valley. The project includes developing a Vision, Strategy, and Action Plan for Sustainable Tourism Development to be realized through public engagement. Solimar is also creating - with the Sedona Verde Valley Tourism Council - a Destination Marketing and Branding Strategy, which focuses on sustainable tourism, river conservation and the region's culture. The project is anticipated to create greater community involvement in conservation and sustainable tourism development efforts.

Peak Park Colombia
Peak Park in Colombia

4. Peak Park, Colombia

Recently, Solimar developed a business plan that detailed a strategy for how tourism can directly enhance the conservation of the Peak Regional Park in Colombia. The park was seeking new ideas on how to involve local communities and organizations working within the park as well as create sustainable income through tourism. Solimar conducted a thorough tourism assessment to gather an understanding of current and potential attractions, market demand and tourism infrastructure. Solimar also collaborated with local tourism stakeholders to raise more funds for conservation and tourism projects that will enhance the visitor experience.

5. Mauritius

Solimar performed capacity assessments of the impacts of tourism on two marine protected areas in Mauritius as degradation and resource depletion with Balaclava and Blue Bay Marine Parks have become serious problems. The assessment utilized tourism conservation models to create a series of recommendations supporting tourism development in the two parks. After completing tasks such as providing technical training in conversation and sustainable tourism management in addition to developing online media and orientation videos to increase awareness of the parks' codes of conduct, the two marine protected areas benefited from improved tourism and consevation management systems as well as a greater awareness of biodiversity's importance to tourism and the overall economy.

These are just a few of the projects Solimar has implemented that focus on conservation. However, we believe in sustainable tourism and it permeates every project we do.

For more information about a business approach to conservation, click here.

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