Supporting Global Development through Sustainable Tourism

Tuesday, 19 February 2013 00:00

Reviving Tourism in a Border Town: Boquillas, Mexico

Written by Matthew Humke

Ernesto Hernandez and I walked along a dusty trail that ran alongside the Rio Grande River as it continued to carve out the border between the US and Mexico in Big Bend National Park. As we walked, we heard a single, soaring voice that bounced off the sheer cliff walls of the river canyon and broke the silence that surrounded us: "Ay, ay, ay, ay,
 canta y no llores,
 Porque cantando se alegran, 
Cielito lindo, los corazones," which literally translated means "My dear, sing and don’t cry because singing warms the heart."

Across the river, standing on the Mexican shoreline, stood our troubadour. His name was Victor, and he came from the local community of Boquillas del Carmen located just across the river from Big Bend Park. Victor was singing “Cielito Lindo”, a favorite Mexican ballad, to us and other hikers in hopes that we’d put a few dollars underneath a rock on our side of the river. At the end of a long day of serenading, Victor would paddle a small boat over to collect the donations in order to help support his family and others back in Boquillas. 

For years, Boquillas was a must-do day trip for anyone visiting Big Bend. To get there, you had to go through Victor. He was the boatman who picked up tourists from the U.S. side of the Rio Grande and poled them across the river to Mexico. There, tourists could rent a donkey for the short trip up to town to enjoy some Tex Mex and cold beers at the local restaurant. Making the pilgrimage to Boquillas was a long-standing tradition for many of the 350,000 people who visit Big Bend every year, especially Texan residents who make up most of that visitation.

But the world changed after the attacks of 9/11. The informal border crossing was seen as a threat to homeland security, and on a spring morning in 2002, a U.S. government official showed up to tell Victor he could no longer bring tourists to Boquillas. The Boquillas border crossing has been closed ever since. 

For the last decade, Boquillas has struggled, along with many of the other small Mexican communities along the Rio Grande that used to enjoy freedom of movement between our two countries. In Boquillas, the community of 100 families dwindled down to only 30. Many packed up and sought new opportunities in bigger Mexican towns further south.

Those that stayed behind did anything they could with the resources they had to make ends meet. A failed government project to bring electricity to Boquillas left behind hundreds of spools of copper wire, which local artisans commandeered to begin making small intricate figurines of scorpions and birds. Walking sticks were carved out of the local “sotole” plant, which quickly grows back after being cut.

Since tourists could no longer come to Boquillas, and local residents couldn’t legally sell their wares in the national park, the artisans had to get creative. They would (illegally) cross the river early in the morning or at night and lay out their crafts on large flat rocks at park trailheads or scenic overlooks where tourists would stop their cars and get out. A torn piece of paper would have prices listed (with most items costing less than $10) and a can would be set up with words written on it like “Donations Accepted, School Kids, Boquillas Mexico”. The dollars placed in these cans helped the remaining community members of Boquillas survive, but it has been a struggle. 

It’s no secret that news coverage of the US/Mexico border region has been overwhelmingly negative for as long as most can remember. Yet the region surrounding Big Bend National Park is considered the most remote and undeveloped area in the contiguous United States (just look up a the night sky to believe it!). Due in part to this isolation, Big Bend has been spared much of the violence and illegal activities that plague other parts of the border region.  

Recognizing the unique situation of this region, U.S. and Mexico representatives announced plans to reopen the Boquillas border crossing. A multi-million dollar, unmanned, state-of-the-art border facility was constructed, and is expected to open in 2013 to allow for the return of visitors to Boquillas. And this is where Solimar comes in. Working alongside the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC), and partnering with the U.S. National Park Service (NPS) and the Mexican National Commission on Natural Protected Areas (CONANP), Solimar will work with the community of Boquillas to develop sustainable tourism products and prepare the area for the return of visitors.

Solimar’s work has already included an initial tourism assessment to identify both supply and demand of potential tourism products in the region. We have also developed a business plan for the formation of a community-owned enterprise that will manage tourism operations in Boquillas. Short-term tourism opportunities include interpretive guided tours – from canoe and hiking trips to sand boarding adventures – as well as an artisan market, food services, and local festivals to highlight the regions cultural and culinary traditions. Long-term opportunities include safari-style tent lodging and spa services built around a nearby hot springs, as well as mountain biking and backcountry trekking tours. 

Solimar has become a leader in directly linking sustainable tourism development to biodiversity conservation in the areas where we work, an effort guided by the development of our Tourism Conservation Toolkit that documents 16 unique strategies to link tourism, conservation, and communities. 


In Boquillas, Solimar will work closely with protected area managers to integrate many of these strategies into Boquillas’ tourism development plans. For example, in order to combat an increase in trash as more people arrive, “best practices” will be developed and taught to local service providers on how to better manage organic and inorganic waste. A “Code of Conduct” will be implemented and messaged through signage to remind visitors of ways in which they can reduce their impact to the environmental and to the local culture. 

Poorly managed livestock have wrecked havoc on the surrounding fragile desert and river ecosystems. The Boquillas tourism project will begin to look at ways that cattle can be repurposed in more sustainable ways. Strategies include the local production of leather crafts and merchandise, community BBQ festivals, and even a tourism package where visitors can become a cowboy for a day to help round up cattle.  

As a hopeful community awaits the opening of a vital border crossing that will bring the return of visitors and opportunity, Solimar will continue to work with local partners to ensure that tourism in Boquillas develops in a way that celebrates and supports the unique ecosystems and heritage of the region. 

Ay, ay, ay, ay,
canta y no llores, 
Porque cantando se alegran, 
Cielito lindo, los corazones”.


Published in General
Wednesday, 27 February 2013 00:00

Pearls of Uganda Wins TO DO! Award

Written by Karen Megarbane

Solimar extends a big congratulations to the Uganda Community Tourism Association (UCOTA) as it will be presented the TO DO! Socially Responsible Award for 2012 in recognition of its Pearls of Uganda program. This is the second consecutive year that one of Solimar’s clients is awarded the TO DO! Award. Last year's winner was the San Miguel del Bala Ecolodge, a community-run ecolodge in the Bolivian Amazon. 

What are the Pearls of Uganda? 

The Pearls of Uganda Program, which officially launched in May 2011, was created by Solimar in partnership with the Uganda Community Tourism Association under the USAID-funded STAR (Sustainable Tourism in the Albertine Rift) project. When Winston Churchill visited Uganda he called it “the Pearl of Africa.” Decades later, tourists can experience the same stunning beauty through the Pearls of Uganda and its network of cultural attractions or “Pearls."

The Pearls of Uganda are a collection of authentic cultural community attractions located throughout Uganda. Run by local communities, these attractions include nature walks, village tours, cultural performances, traditional cooking demonstrations, and craft workshops. They are designed to provide travelers with a glimpse of traditional and modern day Ugandan life. Profits from the tours and attractions benefit local communities as the money goes to support schools, fund conservation projects, and provide income for local guides and performers.

The Pearls of Uganda network also establishes partnerships with hotels, tour operators, and other businesses that are committed to sustainable tourism. These “Pearls Supporters” pledge to contribute to conservation and community efforts in exchange for promotion and partnership under the Pearls network.There are currently over 20 Pearls of Uganda attractions and over 50 private sector Pearls Supporters

What are the TO DO! Awards? 

The "TO DO! Contest for Socially Responsible Tourism” is organized by Studienkreis für Tourismus und Entwicklung (Institute for Tourism and Development) and invites entries from all over the world. The award was created in 1995 in response to newfound global focus on conservation and ecotourism initiatives. The award aimed to not only celebrate ecotourism but also simultaneously push local populations to participate in and benefit from its implementation. 

Awards are given to those who honor the principles of environmental compatibility, while also exemplifying all of the following behaviors: 

  • Awareness Raising
    Enhancing the awareness of the local people regarding the risks and benefits of tourism development in their economic, social and cultural life;
  • Wide-ranging benefit
    Participation of a broad local population strata in the positive economic, social and cultural effects of tourism;
  • Qualified jobs in tourism
    Guarantee of the attractiveness of jobs in tourism for the local people by improving working conditions relative to payment, social security, working hours as well as education and training;
  • Strengthening of identity
    Strengthening the local culture and the cultural identity of people living in tourist destination areas;
  • Minimization/avoidance of damage
    Avoiding and minimizing any social and cultural damage caused by tourism in tourist destination areas.

The Impact of the Pearls of Uganda Program

The Pearls of Uganda success story is a true testament to the benefits sustainable tourism can offer local communities as all profit generated by each Pearl directly contributes to the socio-economic empowerment of it community members in a manner that is not detrimental to their cultural heritage and natural surroundings. So far, the program has experienced impressive results. Since the start of the Pearls program, the number of guests to each community has increased year by year and there has been a huge increase in the inclusion of Pearls on set itineraries of mainstream tour operators, as well as listings on their websites.

Are you feeling inspired by the Pearls of Uganda?

To learn more about how Solimar can help your community enterprise, association or tourism business become more sustainable and improve its marketing, please visit our tourism enterprise development pages and be sure to download our case studies on our destination and community enterprise development models to learn more about our unique approach. Visit our Uganda Project Page to learn more about our work in Uganda. 

Community Tourism Enterprise Case Study 

Published in General
Friday, 01 March 2013 00:00

Tourism Circuits Launch in Morocco

Written by Shawndra Herry

In just a few short weeks, Solimar's Promart (Promotion d'Artisanat) Project will see the culmination of months of hard work with the placement of orientation and interpretation signs along the newly-created circuits in the Medinas of Fes and Marrakech. Medinas, translated as “the old city,” are the historic Arab sections of North African cities known for their artisan wares. The circuits are established pedestrian routes that will guide and inform visitors as they explore the art, history and culture of the Medinas. 

Six thematic circuits are being created in Fes: Monuments and Inns, Artisans, Fes Jdid, Palaces and Gardens, Knowledge and Knowhow, and Walls and Ramparts. There will be five circuits in Marrakech: Iron and Clay, A Thousand and One Doors, The Art of Wood, The Leather Route, and One Souk to Another. The circuits highlight the architectural, cultural and historical gems that these two Moroccan cities have to offer. 

Each circuit showcases the types of crafts that can be found in the Medinas - leather goods, wood carvings, mosaic tiling (zellige), metal works and pottery. The historical monuments found along the circuits date back to the 9thcentury and were built by artisans themselves. These edifices show the extreme attention to detail, the complexity of the craftsmanship and the expertise and talent that Moroccan artisans possessed to create such beautiful works of art. 

The inauguration of the artisan themed tourism circuits will take place in Marrakech on March 18-19, and in Fes on April 1-2. These two-day events will bring together all the project partners, artisans, artisan associations, international tour operators, local travel agencies, and media. An official ceremony will be held along with a ribbon cutting ceremony at the beginning of a circuit in each city.  

A press trip, a familiarization trip and a Business-to-business workshop will also be organized during these two days to introduce the new tourism circuits as well as highlight the marketing and promotion tools that will be used. The online promotion and social media campaign has already experience early success. In just two months, the Visit Medina Facebook page has reached over 3,400 fans. Plans are currently underway for a website and interactive map, printed map, and Medina-specific guidebooks. 

Solimar is very pleased to be working on this project and looks forward to the official launch of these products over the next few weeks. To learn more about how we could help your destination or tourism project with circuit or route development, visit this page

Morocco Project

Published in General
Wednesday, 26 June 2013 00:00

Understanding the Role of Tourism Development in Tourism Marketing

Written by Chris Seek

Even though Solimar began as a tourism marketing agency over 11 years ago, we quickly realized while supporting undiscovered destinations in Costa Rica, Jamaica, Panama, Mongolia, Romania, and West Virginia that destinations need more than just marketing to be successful. Most undiscovered destinations are also under-developed. That’s why we love working in these types of destinations. We know there is a huge market of travelers looking for opportunities to escape crowds of tourists and travel off the beaten path, and we love connecting them to these hidden gem destinations.

But to attract these types of travelers (or any travelers), a tourism product must exist. 

What are you going to do when you get there? Where are you going to stay? Where will you eat? How will the local residents treat you as a visitor? Will they welcome you? What will the service be like at the front desk or in the restaurant? Will your guide be knowledgeable and entertaining? Is the equipment you are using safe? Is the destination clean or littered with trash? Is there enough to do for more than one day?  

These are all elements that make up the visitor experience and create the tourism product. When a tourism destination is undeveloped, rarely is anyone in charge of helping bring the industry and residents together to address all of these issues and help create a holistic tourism experience. This leads to either a destination never realizing its full tourism potential or, worse, a tourism industry that develops unplanned with each sector only working toward their own good instead of the good of the whole destination.   

So what is the role of a tourism development organization in tourism marketing? We work with a lot of destination marketing organizations (DMOs) that believe their only role is to market the destination. But these same organizations are also charged with opening new markets, spreading tourism beyond the “must see” sites, and helping visitors find undiscovered destinations that provide economic benefits to rural communities. You can’t do this without helping develop new tourism products and destinations.

Let’s look at an example right here in the U.S. Travel Oregon is not only doing a fantastic job marketing the incredible tourism offerings in Oregon, but they are also growing Oregon’s tourism industry by supporting the development of tourism destinations and products that can attract new markets. Travel Oregon’s consumer website is world class, but what impresses me even more is their industry website. It’s designed to communicate directly to their industry partners and residents about the importance of tourism and the many ways Travel Oregon can help them develop their tourism business or develop tourism in their communities. Through their Rural Tourism Studio, which offers training programs, matching grants, and marketing support, the program helps bring community members together to develop tourism on their own terms, in a way that ensures tourism will not destroy their unique sense of place.

Take a moment to watch this video from Travel Oregon that summarizes this approach to destination development. What I love most about this approach is that no one from Portland is telling this local community what or how to develop their destination. Instead, they facilitate a process to bring people together and provide tools, education, and grants to make it happen. Watching this video makes me want to visit Oakridge, an undiscovered destination that is developing a tourism experience that I know I will enjoy.

Wondering how to get started developing your tourism destination? We can help. Solimar’s tourism development services range from destination strategyproduct developmentworkforce trainingroute/circuit developmentinvestment promotion, and marketingContact us now to learn how we can help develop your undiscovered destinations!

Published in General
Tuesday, 30 July 2013 00:00

Boquillas Opens For Business

Written by Super User
Boquillas del Carmen, Mexico  

In October of 2012, Solimar was asked to work on a destination marketing plan for a small border town in Mexico called Boquillas. Prior to 2002, Boquillas was a frequent destination for day-trippers from the Big Bend National Park and local Texans, but after 9/11, the border was closed for security reasons, effectively cutting off all economic activity in the region and forcing the community to find new ways to support themselves. Because tourism could no longer be a source of income for the families living there, they began to raise cattle, whose grazing habits endangered the protected areas nearby. The environmental threats and economic hardships faced in this region prompted the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC) to partner with the U.S. National Park Service (NPS) and the Mexican National Commission on Natural Protected Areas (CONANP) to support the development of community tourism in the Big Bend/Rio Bravo region when the government first mentioned reopening the border. CEC asked Solimar to join their team to help develop Boquillas as a sustainable tourism destination and prepare the area for the return of visitors.

Work began with an initial tourism assessment to identify the tourism supply and demand in the region. José Ernesto Hernandez Morales was hired as a local specialist to help conduct the assessment and carry out the training that would occur afterwards. Ernesto, as he is known, has long lived in the Big Bend region, serving as a river guide for more than 20 years before the border was closed. With extensive knowledge of the area and people, Ernesto was able to hold meetings with community members on both sides of the border to engage them with the project and allow their insight to carry the project forward. Through discussions with visitors at Big Bend National Park, a site analysis, and meetings with community members, we were able to identify the needs and interests of target markets visiting the region before moving forward with training and site development.

Solimar began training Boquillas community members in tourism operation and management, including interpretive guide training and sustainability best practices guidelines to reduce the negative impacts of tourism in the region. There was also an introduction of a homestay program as a grassroots alternative to accommodation development, which would require far more investment and capital than was immediately available to the community. The homestay program, in addition to improved interpretive signage, local guides, and educational/experiential tours provided the tools to further engage local community members and visitors. The training sessions also increased the number of local community members benefitting from sustainable tourism and ensured that visitors would receive high-quality and professional tourism services.

canoeing in BoquillasFollowing the training, Solimar developed a business plan for the formation of a community-owned visitor center to manage tourism operations in Boquillas, including the creation of the “Discover Boquillas” brand. After the tourism management training, three community members were selected to manage operations at the visitor center. The visitor center includes a “Discover Boquillas” merchandise section, a small “museum” highlighting the important points in Boquillas history, and the office where the community tourism project is managed and directed. One of three managers is always on duty at the office whenever the border is open to answer questions and provide visitors with information. Solimar also included plans for short-term tourism opportunities such as canoeing, hiking, an artisan market, food services, and local festivals to highlight the regions cultural and culinary traditions. In addition, long-term opportunities such as safari-style tent lodging and spa services built around a nearby hot springs were also discussed. We hope to see these opportunities develop in the coming years as Boquillas continues to establish itself as a sustainable tourism destination.

All the preparation for the border reopening was put to the test on April 10th, 2013, when the border officially opened with only 24 hours notice. Ernesto rushed into action to notify the community to get ready to put into practice everything they learned during the training sessions. Roughly 100 people crossed on April 10th, mostly members of the media, since the general public had not yet been alerted.

In the following month, more than 500 tourists visited Boquillas, demonstrating the community’s loyal and strong following and solidifying its potential to make significant economic gain from tourism. Now that Solimar’s part of the project is coming to a close, we’re thrilled to see the Boquillas community coming back to life and their environment thriving from the transnational love of this area.

Published in General
Sunday, 29 December 2013 00:00

Morocco Project Success

Written by Shawndra Herry

Morocco, an exotic gateway to Sub-Saharan Africa, is home to some of the most beautiful and most famous handcrafts on the continent. Along the maze-like streets of the Medina (old city) and inside the souks, one can find hand woven Berber carpets, brightly colored leather slippers and ottomans, ceramic tile tables, typical instruments such as the bendir (a hand drum) and so much more. Over a thirteen month period, Solimar had the opportunity to bring these artisans and their handcrafts into the spotlight on the national and international stage though a project centered on the creation of cultural and artisan themed circuits within the Medinas of the imperial cities of Fez and Marrakech. Solimar's Morocco project was extremely successful and was able to increase the sales of handcrafts and tourism revenues through its creative marketing and public relations campaigns.  

The success of Solimar's Morocco project in increasing awareness of Moroccan handcrafts and the artisans that make them, was focused on a tailored public relations and marketing strategy that utilized local media outlets as well as international ones. Through our efforts, the project was highlighted in the January/February and April/May issues of Air Arabia inflight magazine, in the April and June issues of Spotlight on Sustainable Tourism, an international e-publication with over 90,000 members, on the Petit-Fute website, over 50 local news articles, tv and radio ads and a special edition tourism magazine dedicated to Moroccan handcrafts. Marketing collateral such as a paper map of the circuits and a guidebook were also created. The project also boasts the creation of a Facebook page, Visit Medina, which received over 2,000 likes in its first 2 months of operation as well as the creation of a website with the same name. The website features an interactive map and interesting historical and cultural antic dotes, that allows the visitor to have a glimpse of the wonders that Moroccan artisans can create. 
The successful completion of the creation and instillation of appropriate signage for 11 artisan themed tourism circuits in 2 cities and the launch and roll out of a marketing and public relations campaign, all within a thirteen month time-frame, speaks to the strength and dedication that Solimar brings to all of its projects. Thanks to the success of the project, Solimar was fortunate to have local celebrity Mouna Fettou as the project ambassador during the official launch of the circuits, presided over by the Minister of Crafts; as well as being one of the only projects sites to be visited by the CEO of the Millennium Challenge Corporation, Mr. Daniel W Yohannes.
With 2013 bringing a close to the Morocco project, Solimar looks forward  in 2014 to many more successful projects like that of Morocco!
Published in General
Thursday, 23 October 2014 18:45

Solimar Leads Tourism Training and Development in Eastern Sri Lanka

Written by Carmela Otarra
Solimar Eastern Sri Lanka 04
Eastern Sri Lanka

Since September 2013, Solimar International has been supporting USAID's BIZ+ Program in Sri Lanka. The country has been opening its doors to the world to improve its economy after a violent 26-year conflict that ended in 2009.

USAID's BIZ+ program aims to stimulate economic growth, job creation, and to increase household incomes in the economically lagging regions of Sri Lanka by providing small and medium-sized businesses with the technical know-how and financial resources they need to succeed.

Using our expertise in tourism training and education, Solimar is currently supporting two local tourism businesses in Eastern Sri Lanka by providing technical skills training in developing and managing tourism. By assisting Ecowave Travels in Arugam Bay and East N West in Batticaloa/Passekudah, we are working to increase not only awareness about the Eastern Sri Lanka region but grow tourism-related jobs as well.

Lucia Prinz, our Product Development and Training Specialist, is currently in Eastern Sri Lanka providing the businesses with support on product enhancement, establishing systems, tourism training, and creating promotional materials.

Even at the early stage of the project, Lucia has already received praises for her impressive business plan from the project manager of BIZ+ and one of the directors at Ecowave.

Solimar recently caught up with Lucia to get updates from the project.

Solimar International: Can you tell us more about the two local businesses, Ecowave and East N West, we are supporting through tourism training in Eastern Sri Lanka?

Ecowave Travels
Ecowave Travels (Photo from:

Lucia Prinz (LP): Both of the businesses are social enterprises. Ecowave’s goal is to provide employment opportunities to community people. They work on two main areas, one is organic agriculture and the other is tourism. In organic agriculture, local farmers provide them with vegetables that they sell to hotels and residents in Arugam Bay. In tourism, they strive to involve locals in their operations: Ecowave employs local women as cooking instructors for the cooking class, and both areas provide tourism training and employment opportunities for positions like tour guides, drivers, and fishermen. The Fisherman Association that provides the service of taking the tourist in their catamaran on a tour in a lagoon has benefited from this support, for example.

East N West also works to provide employment for the people of the communities that they visit in their tours. They also charge LKR (Sri Lankan rupees) 100, which is less than U$ 1, as a social fund; when the fund reaches a certain amount they will analyze the needs for each community and help them to acquire something that they need.

Solimar: Who are the partners and stakeholders for this project?

LP: The main partners are Ecowave and East N West, in addition to an Italian nonprofit organization called Institute for International Economic Cooperation (ICEI), which is based in Milan. ICEI is a Member of the UN World Tourism Organization and works in sustainable and responsible tourism in different countries.

Solimar Eastern Sri Lanka 02

Solimar: What kinds of tourism training have you already provided to our partners?

LP: I have completed training of a sales manager at Ecowave in Arugam Bay in selling techniques and in financial procedures. For East N West, I have done training on online marketing. For both companies, I have advised on improvement of their tours.

Solimar: What are the next steps in the project?

LP: I am going to develop a 30-hour Guide Training for the guides of both Ecowave and East N West. The guides currently have very little knowledge about the history and nature of their areas. I am also going to provide them with interpretation techniques in guiding so that they can deliver information in a more fun and professional way, in addition to improving their overall professionalism as tour guides. This will start in November.

The Guide Training course focuses heavily on dynamic activities and opportunities for participants to practice and apply their new skills. In the training sessions the guides will be instructed in interpretation and natural and cultural history together.

Solimar is pleased to be part of the USAID VEGA/BIZ+ Program and we are looking forward to this next phase of activities.

Does your company require the tourism training that Lucia is providing to our partners in Eastern Sri Lanka? If you are interested in learning how to improve your own tourism staff, download Solimar's Tool Kit on Tourism Workforce Development.


Published in General
Wednesday, 08 April 2015 16:58

Four Benefits that Sustainable Tourism Development Ensures for Cuba

Written by Nathan Hingtgen

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.

Published in General
Thursday, 23 July 2015 17:16

Preserving Cultural Heritage in the Land of Thunder Dragon

Written by Stephanie Westhelle
Tigers Nest Monastaery Bhutan
Shutterstock Photo Bhutan Tiger's Nest

The number of international tourism arrivals in Bhutan has steadily increased since the early 2000s but only 50,000 international tourists visited Bhutan in 2013. (RA Online Bhutan). This is a surprisingly low number given the country’s rich culture, picturesque landscapes, and location between the two largest countries in the world, India and China. The low number of arrivals is in part a result of the country’s policy of low impact-high value tourism, which caps the number of annual arrivals and sets a minimum daily spend for international tourists. This policy attracts a more valuable, high-end traveler than nearby Nepal, for instance, which is viewed as a more budget destination that attracts backpackers and adventurers. The low impact-high value tourism policy aligns with the commitment to cultural heritage preservation that underpins much of Bhutan’s public policy.

Bhutan has an ambitious program in place to index, monitor, and preserve culturally significant structures and monuments. In an effort to extend those protections to villages and cultural sites, the Ministry of Home and Cultural Affairs has drafted a piece of legislation called the Heritage Sites Bill. The bill, which will go before parliament in the fall, will create a process for designating nationally significant cultural sites and create a series of protections for these sites.

Bhutan Traditional Dress
Shutterstock Photo Bhutan

To support the implementation of the Heritage Sites Bill, the Ministry of Home and Cultural Affairs, Department of Conservation of Heritages Sites, in partnership with the World Bank, has contract Solimar to help develop a methodology for identifying and prioritize potential cultural sites, and for developing economic models that support villages that take on the Cultural Site designation. Our methodology for identifying and prioritizing potential cultural sites is includes:

• An analysis and mapping of existing geographic and demographic data from the Gross National Happiness Commission and other sources.
• A series of workshops with members of the Royal Government of Bhutan, private sector representatives from the country’s major industries, and leaders of development NGOs and conservation groups.
• A survey of the elected representatives of the country’s 5,000 villages, conducted via mobile phone.

As a result of this intervention, Solimar will provide recommendations for the criteria for selecting cultural sites for preservation, a prioritized list of potential cultural sites that meet those criteria, economic models to support newly designated cultural sites.

One of these economic development models will be tourism promotion to newly designated cultural sites, which will leverage tourism revenues to directly support cultural heritage preservation in traditional villages across the country.

To learn more about how tourism & conservation can work together, download our case study!





Published in General
Thursday, 21 January 2016 19:36

Solimar Launches Tourism Development Project in Sri Lanka

Written by Marisa Mansueto
Sri Lanka at dusk

Solimar International is starting off the New Year right – we’re proud to have just launched a new project in Sri Lanka on January 4th of this year! This project is called Entrepreneurship and New Product Development in the Tourism Sector of the Northern and Eastern provinces of Sri Lanka. With the International Finance Corporation as our client, we look forward to working hard on this project until its intended end date of December 31st, 2016.  


Sri Lanka is a small island south of India, boasting gorgeous beaches, diverse wildlife, and lush rainforests as well as awe-inspiring ancient Buddhist ruins. Generally, Sri Lanka’s Western coast has been its tourism hub, but the Northern and Eastern provinces of Sri Lanka have recently been experiencing an emerging shift in the tourism industry. Although these parts of the nation encounter obstacles with respect to providing top-notch quality to tourists, we know that there is opportunity for growth and positive change. We intend to help develop these provinces into high quality destinations for international tourists with the goal of attracting visitors, both international and regional, for years to come. In this year’s project, led by Lucia Prinz, we are working towards boosting meaningful conversations in the Northern and Eastern provinces, specifically the Mannar, Batticaloa and Ampara districts, aiming for the advancement of improved policies and services between the private sector and government. 

Buddhist monks
Buddhist monks


During our year working towards improving the Sri Lanka tourism sector, we will be busy with essential tasks including: collaborating with local tourism providers to ensure the most up-to-date client services, and implement skills development training to these tourism providers in geographical areas using our Small Tourism Enterprise Operations and Management training course as a model. We will also provide workshops, sales training, and technical assistance and enhanced market access to promote our designated Sri Lanka provinces. In addition, we aim to organize local festivals to promote Sri Lankan provincial culture and tradition.


By the project’s end, our anticipated results include: implementation of a Small Tourism and Enterprise Operations and Management Course; creation of measures for best practices to submit a work plan to the IFC; enactment of a relationship between government and private stakeholders in tourism; expansion of tourism products or services, and implementation of a marketing strategy. These are just a few of our anticipated results, and we will keep readers posted on our progress throughout the year. Solimar is excited to start this new journey towards improving Northern and Eastern Sri Lanka tourism!

Arugam Bay
Arugam Bay
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