Supporting Global Development through Sustainable Tourism

Training in Mali
Tourism training in Mali, a member of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation

Solimar International is conducting a study on behalf of the Standing Committee for Economic and Commercial Cooperation (COMCEC) to analyze information and communication technology (ICT) tools used in tourism marketing by SMEs in member countries of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

As online marketing is considered a crucial tool for destinations and tourism businesses to use and reach and influence travelers, OIC member governments will use the study in creating policies to support such businesses, especially regarding improving Internet technology and online marketing practices.

COMCEC has been working to enhance economic and commercial cooperation among the OIC's 57 members and tourism represents a significant driving force for the socio-economic development of OIC member countries.

The performance of tourism SMEs can be greatly enhanced by the Internet as it offers businesses the potential to make information and booking facilities available to large numbers of tourists relatively inexpensively. Appropriate ICT tools can help improve tourism SMEs by enabling them to communicate faster with their customers and distribute their services more efficiently online. In addition, ICTs will also assume a more significant role for tourism SMEs as roughy 68% of hoteliers will shift their budgets from offline to online marketing services

Uganda accommodation
The study will help governments better promote businesses like this accommodation provider in Uganda

Challenges to Overcome

However, not all tourism businesses have been able to utilize ICT efficiently as many SMEs lack the capital for purchasing hardware and software as well as having insufficient marketing and technology training and understanding.

Most of the OIC members are developing countries, thus representing a significant challenege for COMCEC and OIC as the ICT infrastructure is lacking.

Thus, in order to gather information about current ICT practices and position Solimar to provide recommendations on how to make tourism marketing practices more ICT-friendly, David Brown sent out surveys to hotels and tour operators in the 27 OIC member countries registered to the COMCEC Tourism Working Group for the project.

Report Findings

Titled Effective Marketing Strategies: ICT-based solutions for the OIC Member Countries, the report will also feature eight case studies from OIC members - three of which include visits to Mozambique, Oman and Malaysia - that illustrate successes by tourism SMEs or a country's policy implementation. Furthermore, a section addressing general challenges faced within all three OIC regions, along with recommendations to ensure best practice, will appear in the study.

Findings from the study will be presented at the 6th meeting of the COMCEC Tourism Working Group on September 3, 2015.

The document will include policy recommendations on how governments can improve the operating environment for tourism businesses. In addition, the study will feature approaches undertaken by tourism SMEs.

To obtain more information on Solimar's tourism marketing services, click here

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Bhutan Prayer Flags
Photo by RadioFreeBarton, via Flickr

Bhutan is a land renowned for its pristine landscapes, diverse wildlife and its unswerving commitment to biodiversity conservation and cultural preservation. As Bhutan Prime Minister Tshering Tsobay came through Washington DC in March, he spoke on the history, the present situation, and what lies ahead for a nation that is small in size, but huge on sustainability. 

 

Bhutan: A Legacy of Conservation

In the 1970s, Bhutan’s democratic leaders decreed in their official constitution that a minimum of 60% of the land would be under forest cover. Since then, they have achieved a laudable result, by not only maintaining this target, but exceeding it by 10%.

Today, ecotourism presents a whole new world of opportunity and challenges for the country. Needless to say, the decisions made in this time of dramatic global change concerning ecotourism will be imperative to securing a brighter future for not only Bhutan, but the entire region.

 

Tourism’s Impact on Bhutan

The wrong type of tourism may mean that this unparalleled natural wonder could be spoiled by forces of human progress. The right type of tourism would mean that it is preserved for and admired by future generations. The right choice here is a no-brainer - all the more reason why so many forces are now acting to ensure this legacy of sustainability lives on. Asides from the sheer magnificence of this region, the benefits afforded from ecotourism provide us with further reasons to care. Bhutan is in one of the world’s top ten most biodiverse regions, a region which provides water for 1/5 of the world’s population - It is even ranked by many studies as the number one happiest country in Asia.

 

Why Bhutan and Ecotourism Work

On a purely human level, ecotourism has the potential to create phenomenal advantages for the people of Bhutan. Employment opportunities from ecotourism could bring long-term livelihoods for rural communities, improving standards of living all over.

That being said, ecotourism in Bhutan is not without its challenges. In fact, there has been more change in the last 50 years of Bhutan’s history than in the entire 500 years preceding it. This also means that this magnificent part of the world has never been exposed to such large and diverse threats. Among these many threats are climate change and poaching, just as with many neighboring Asian nations.

Bhutan River
Photo by Göran Höglund (Kartläsarn), via Flickr

Urban Sprint

However, one of the largest challenge may prove to be the change in mindsets and attitudes which have inevitably arisen with the proliferation of globalization. More than 60% of Bhutan’s population is under 35 years old - it’s median age is 22.3 years. Work needs to be done to ensure that the younger generation captures the vision and passion which their ancestors had for their natural land. This is no easy feat, with a huge proportion of Bhutan’s younger citizens moving to the city for work and education - thus increasing their disconnect with the environment. Rural opportunities will be difficult to develop if there is simply nobody left in non-urban areas.

 

‘Bhutan For Life’

As can be seen, both the challenges and the opportunities presented here are plentiful. 

‘Bhutan for Life’, an innovative funding of conservation led by World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Royal Government of Bhutan, exists to overcome these challenges while also utilizing the great opportunities existing within its own forests. Among their many goals, ‘Bhutan for Life’ will be preserving the parks, maintaining wildlife and ensuring this can continue, daresay, forever. Much of this will be achieved through what they have describe as balance - that is, balancing economic development with the conservation of natural resources, balancing jobs in the cities with jobs in rural villages, as well as balancing ancient traditions with modern materialistic desires. With this balance in place, they hope that Bhutan will continue to not only remain a natural wonder, but to also establish itself as a beacon of light, pointing other nations towards the achievability of a more sustainable future.

 

For more information, feel free to download our free Tourism and Conservation Toolkit.

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Last night, Solimar International had the pleasure of opening the Myanmar Tourism Federation’s (MTF) first North American Office in history. This was a momentous occasion for both Myanmar and Solimar International, with bright expectations and hopes paving the way for a thriving future in this country.

Myanmar Tourism Federation Chris Seek Secretary General
Sec. General Mr. U Kyi Thein Ko, Chris Seek, Dr. Don Hawkins & Ms. Thwe Myo Tut

The turnout at the event was spectacular, with representatives from a wide variety of spheres coming together to celebrate the future of Myanmar Tourism. Special guests included Mr. U Kyi Thein Ko, MTF Secretary General and the Myanmar Ambassador’s daughter, Thwe Myo Tut, who were giving their warmest welcomes.

Among the lively crowd were also representatives from National Geographic, Smithsonian Institute, World Wildlife Fund, Destination Marketing Association International and various Non-Profits, as well as various tour operators, PR and media personnel,  tourism consultants, George Washington tourism professors/students, interested travelers and industry leaders.

Myanmar Tourism Federation Guests Speech
Varied Guests Enjoying the Speeches

Several speeches were given by Solimar International CEO Chris Seek, Mr. U Kyi Thein Ko as well as Ms. Thwe Myo Tut, Dr. Don Hawkins and the Mandelay Tour Operator. These speeches spurred all to imagine the unmeasured depth of Myanmar’s beauty, its incredible diversity and hopeful potential in what sustainable tourism could bring to the people and local livelihoods - as well as the wealth of rich culture it could offer the world.

Chris Seek speech Myanmar
Chris Seek giving a Presentation

Attendees described their enthusiasm all round. “I’ve been to Thailand but now I want to go to Myanmar,” said Devon Sponheimer, from World Resources Institute and Japlanning, “This is a great event, it’s a lovely space.”

Todd Metrokin, from Ogilvy creative marketing, was impressed by the event and described it as “lively, cool, fun. Beautiful pictures and now I’m going to have be sucked in to go to Myanmar!”

Myanmar Tourism Federation Networking
Guests Networking at the Event

These positive impressions are vital in these groundbreaking moments of Myanmar’s history - a country which was once closed to international tourism for over 60 years. As this nation opens its doors to tourism, there is no telling what could happen, with tourist arrivals multiplying at phenomenal speeds in the past few years.

This symbolic opening of the first North American Office is only a sign of things to come - and a sign of increased openings to this breathtaking country.

The story of international tourism to Cuba is a complex one. From the pre-Revolution Tropicana Club and casino days to tourism's eradication under Castro, and now back again with predominantly Havana and all-inclusive resort promotions, the island's relationship to international tourism has constantly evolved. Cuba received more than three million international tourists in 2014, more than any other year in its history. This trend shows no sign of slowing down as arrivals for January 2015 outpaced January 2014 by 16%. Most of these tourists come from Canada and Europe, but as you might have heard, Cuba has another huge market entering the mix.

Cuban and American flags in Havana 
An increasingly common scene in Old Havana.

The smoothing of relations between the United States and Cuba nations may allow for a massive influx of American tourists in the near future, but for now this is uncertain. With the potential influx of tourists from the United States, will Cuba develop a sustainable tourism model a la Costa Rica, or will they choose to emulate the all-inclusive route so popular throughout the rest of the Caribbean?

Cuba has already developed a massive all-inclusive resort enclave, Varadero, on the northern coast a couple hours east of Havana. This 20-mile strand of beach is home to many joint ventures between the Cuban government and foreign companies, and only a small percentage of profits ever benefit the Cuban people. Massive all-inclusive resorts, although becoming more sustainability-focused, have a long history of being unsustainable. Profits depart destinations, environmental degradation occurs, and local traditions are shuttered or commoditized, leading to varying degrees of tourism imperialism.

Cuba has developed a few other all-inclusive resorts outside of Varadero, but an overwhelming majority of the island still lends itself to sustainable tourism development. By choosing to move forward with the sustainable tourism model instead of further developing mass all-inclusive resort tourism, four key benefits to Cuba arise:

1. Protection of natural areas:

Viñales Valley, Cuba
Viñales Valley, Western Cuba

Cuba has 263 protected natural areas that combine to make up over 20% its territory. Promoting ecotourism to these parts, while maintaining safe environmental limits, can funnel more money into the conservation and enhancement of these sites or encourage the designation of even more protected areas. Many travelers are seeking an experience beyond the typical sun, sea, and sand of mass tourism. A visit to Cuba's protected areas would create this opportunity while helping to develop the ever-elusive sense-of-place that destinations desire to create.

Costa Rica has used this sustainability-focused approach to become the ecotourism epicenter of Central America, if not the world. Sustainable ecotourism has become a dominant part of their destination image, and they have well-preserved resources that will sustain their tourism economy long into the future. Why couldn't Cuba become the king of Caribbean ecotourism? Cuba and Costa Rica have similar natural attractions including breathtaking mountains, extraordinary biodiversity, and pristine reefs and wetlands. No other Caribbean island has an array of natural assets to match Cuba.

Developing a sustainable tourism model brings an incentive to keep these areas protected long into the future. Solimar International has had success implementing sustainable solutions in a similar situation in the Dominican Republic, encouraging the protection of biodiversity through tourism with small and medium-sized businesses in the face of mass tourism resort development.

2. Preservation of cultural heritage:

In addition to amazing natural areas, Cuba has unique cultural tourism assets as well. UNESCO has designated an astounding seven sites on the island as cultural World Heritage Sites. Perhaps most importantly, these are spread throughout the island and only one is in Havana. Havana will never lack for tourists and distributing visitors throughout the rest of the country will be key to developing in a sustainable way. Linking these UNESCO sites and other cultural attractions together will encourage visitors to stay longer while creating a more authentic experience than all-inclusive resort travel. These outcomes fit the sustainable tourism model as profits would increase due to longer stays while spreading beyond the resorts and Havana.

The socialist history of Cuba is a tourism asset in and of itself. Even as Cuba eschews some of this philosophy, visitors will remain fascinated by the stories of Fidel, Ché, and the Revolution. Marketing these already-present Revolution-themed attractions instead of further promoting mass resort tourism builds upon Cuba's unique cultural assets without further degradation of the natural or cultural environment, a possible outcome of building more resorts. This way, Cuba can show their cultural heritage while further developing the authentic sense-of-place that encourages repeat visits and promotes a positive destination image.

Jose Fuster residence and workshop 
The residence and work area of artist José Fuster

Cultural tourism could become a more powerful force throughout the island and is by no means limited to socialist history or UNESCO-designated sites. Baseball, music, dance, art, culinary traditions, agriculture, and many other aspects contribute to the island's distinct cultural identity. By moving visitors and profits beyond the resorts and Havana, Cubans have more incentive to simply act naturally and be themselves instead of putting on tacky, commoditized representations of themselves at the all-inclusives. Solimar International has previously demonstrated how tourism can be a catalyst for protecting cultural heritage while increasing local revenue in Fez and Marrakech, Morocco.

3. Support for the Entrepreneurial Movement sweeping the Island

The combination of Cuba's natural and cultural assets can be integrated into an immensely marketable sustainable tourism arsenal. In theory, this sounds great, but what is the vehicle for achieving this goal? One option would be to facilitate the formation of private enterprise and entrepreneurial development, which has led to innovation, efficiency, and coordination in the tourism sector in other destinations. In recent years, the Cuban government has slowly integrated private enterprise into the economy. This has been undertaken largely to reduce dependence upon the government, which can no longer supply everyone with jobs or a livable wage, and to bring black market activities into the formal economy.

As private enterprise becomes more viable, competition will lead to innovation and increased efficiency in the tourism industry. The Cuban people, who are quite resilient and creative, have actually had to develop a sort of entrepreneurial spirit over the years to overcome economic hardships. In Cuba this concept is known as "resolver," which literally means "to resolve" and can be understood as something along the lines of "we'll figure it out," or "we'll do what we have to do." Deep neighborhood and family networks have evolved out of this process. These networks have come together to solve problems time and time again. Isn't that what entrepreneurs do?

American tourists at a Cuban paladar
Lunch at a paladar, which used to be a garage/mechanic shop.

Cuban citizens view tourism as an engine for enterprise creation, mainly in the forms of casas particulares (rooms available for tourists to rent in private homes), paladares (small, privately-owned restaurants) and transportation services. Patronizing these businesses undoubtedly leaves the impression of an authentic experience in the minds of travelers while simultaneously contributing to the well-being of local residents via increased income. However, categories of legal self-employment are still restricted in Cuba. For example, Cuban citizens cannot be self-employed as tour guides, although the government has shown a recent affinity for being more responsive than in the past. Further developing private enterprise in tourism disseminates the benefits of tourism beyond the top level, reduces leakage, and creates competition. Competition is vital to innovation and a constantly evolving tourism product.

Solimar International has experience in facilitating new sources of income for people via small, entrepreneurial tourism ventures, specifically in Mali. As Cubans transition from government-provided jobs, they will continue to see the tourism industry as a viable alternative. Solimar International's expertise in aiding small tourism businesses could prove to be valuable.

4. Improved well-being of Cuban citizens

As sustainable tourism catches on, Cubans will have access to more jobs and careers, higher earning potential, cross-cultural interaction, and new skills and training. A successful tourism industry with a healthy private sector component reduces dependence upon the government while empowering Cuban citizens to forge their own path. If Cuba can develop tourism similarly to the Costa Rican model, the results will be well-maintained natural areas and cultural sites which will provide jobs and careers well into the future. All of these developments contribute to improved financial security and overall well-being for Cuban citizens.

Dawn at Vinales Valley
A new dawn for Cuba? Viñales Valley at sunrise.

I see the potential for these four benefits to "spiral up" to create a sustainable tourism model in Cuba. If private enterprise flourishes, resident well-being increases, thus providing further incentive to protect natural and cultural heritage. Cuba has fantastic natural and cultural attractions, and once Cuban citizens gain more sovereignty in the business development process, the potential for innovative and sustainable tourism products is infinite. Of course the government will still be a key figure in this development, but it can help by enforcing environmental regulations and supporting programs to preserve cultural identity. Ideally, the public and private sectors work together to ensure that Cuba's tourism growth happens in a sustainable way.

During my studies at East Carolina University's M.S. Sustainable Tourism program, I worked with Dr. Carol Kline on my M.S. thesis and a subsequent publication in Tourism Management. My research examines the relationship between private enterprise and tourism development in Cuba. I traveled to Cuba as part of a research team to interview residents about these topics. Out of this process came a realization that this is a critical time in history for Cuba's tourism industry. The possible influx of U.S. tourists only adds to the importance and immediacy of the need for Cuba to choose a sustainable path of tourism development. These decisions will determine the long-term success of tourism on the island and who benefits. I joined Solimar International, one of the leading sustainable tourism development firms with the hope that combining my knowledge of Cuba with their experience can help Cuba follow the right path to development.

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