The Challenge

In 2012, international tourist arrivals topped the 1 billion mark globally for the first time in history. Although an important economic driver that creates 1 out of 11 jobs internationally, the growth of tourism worldwide has resulted in considerable negative environmental impacts, especially in fragile ecosystems like coastal and marine regions. From the urban sprawl of destinations like Cancún, Mexico to the staggering amount of waste produced by cruise ships everywhere – we are simply loving the world’s oceans to death.

 

Go Blue Central America website

Yet as tourism grows, authentic destinations continue to struggle to find their niche in the face of the generic mass-tourism model that many developers, governments and investors tend to favor. Tourism in coastal Central America is no different where emerging destinations like Roatán, Honduras and Bocas del Toro, Panamá offer healthy coral reefs, pristine water and rich cultural heritage for visitors to enjoy.

Yet these places are at a crossroads. In one direction, unrelenting economic and political forces are pushing them towards building more cruise ship terminals and all-inclusive resorts. The other direction, one that is preferred by most local residents and business owners who care about their home, is to protect and promote the natural resources and cultural attractions that makes them unique in hopes that international visitors will come and discover it themselves. But how do you do that?

The Solution

In an effort promote sustainable tourism destinations in coastal Central America and to help micro, small and medium-sized tourism enterprises (MSMEs) at these destinations reach new markets – the USAID Regional Program partnered with the National Geographic Society (NGS), the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and SBAIC small business member Solimar International to create the Go Blue Central America project in 2012.

At the heart of the project is the National Geographic Go Blue Central America Geotourism website, a multi-destination online platform that empowers local tourism MSMEs (including tour operators, hotels, restaurants and more), residents, artists, and enthusiasts to tell the story of their destination by creating webpages that highlight local businesses and attractions alongside one of the most recognizable and trusted brands in the world. The best travel advice comes from the people who live there, and the Go Blue Central America Geotourism website delivers insightful and rich content through the contribution of local residents combined with interactive maps, videos, photos, and thematic storytelling.

The Geotourism Process 

The Geotourism process is one that is highly participatory and inclusive.  First, a Geotourism stewardship council is formed that includes public, private and non-profit sectors to determine marketing and sustainability goals of the project and criteria for participation.  Next, residents and business owners are invited to create content for the Geotourism website that highlights local attractions and unique aspects of the destination. Then, National Geographic's team of web developers, cartographers and travel writers integrate the locally generated content into the final Geotourism website. 

 

Bocas del Toro Geotourism Coordinator Lucia Prinz introduces Go Blue to a local women's cooperative

For many local tourism MSMEs, having a webpage on a National Geographic website is the only online marketing presence they may have (and its certainly the closest most with ever come to being in the NGS magazine).  The website allows them to describe their products and services, upload photos and video, provide their contact information, and even geo-reference their location with NGS’ sophisticated online mapping technology.

Sustainability and the Tourism Industry

In addition to providing greater market access for tourism MSMEs in coastal Central America, the Go Blue Central America project also has a central goal of infusing sustainability principles and practices into the day-to-day operations of participating businesses.  Local Geotourism Stewardships Councils identified critical issues related to tourism and conservation, from diver impacts on coral reefs to waste management to unsustainable seafood practices.  Each destination developed its own list of tourism “Best Practices” designed to reduce the impact of tourism in fragile coastal and marine environments, and both staff and management of participating businesses were required to complete a basic training in those sustainability best practices. 

The Go Blue Central America project recognizes that in order to reduce the impact of tourism in coastal destinations, increasing visitor awareness must also be part of the strategy. Therefore, each Go Blue destination also developed a “Code of Conduct” that provide visitors – from divers and snorkelers to restaurant patrons and souvenir hunters – a set of easy-to-understand actions they can take while visiting the destination that will reduce their negative impact to the destination’s natural and cultural resources.

If You Build It…They Don’t Always Come: Go Blue’s Online Marketing Campaign

Even with great content and a world-class brand, the Go Blue Central America Geotourism website is like any other…you must drive visitors to it. In order to do so, the Go Blue Central America project implemented an online marketing campaign that featured “inbound” or “content-based” marketing activities. Inbound marketing is characterized as marketing that earns rather than buysconsumer attention by providing valuable and relevant information that target markets (like travelers to Central America) are seeking. The advantages of inbound marketing for Go Blue include more targeted marketing communications, lower-cost marketing activities, and the opportunity to open two-way communication channels with target audiences. 

Go Blue Facebook post promoting participating MSMEs through social media

In the case of Go Blue, this meant first determining the unique traveler “personas” to target (which included watersports enthusiasts, backpackers, sun and fun leisure travelers, etc.) and then developing engaging travel planning content, related to the Go Blue destinations, that those travelers would find useful.  Content concepts include “Roatán’s Top 10 Dive Sites” or “Best Hostels in Bocas Under $25”.  That content was then delivered through a number of online channels, including the Go Blue Central America Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.  Within each blog entry and Facebook post, links to relevant participating businesses’ Go Blue webpages (or websites) were included to drive potential clients to those businesses online.

Results

Nearly 600 local residents and business owners in Honduras and Panama have created user accounts that allow them to contribute content to the Go Blue Central America website, which currently has 386 unique webpages featuring local businesses, attractions and points of interest.  Since it’s launch in January 2013, the Go Blue Central America website has attracted more than 50,000 visitors from 140 different countries.

Prior to the launch of the Go Blue Central America website in January, 2013 – subcontractor Solimar International collected one year of gross sales baseline data from the150 businesses featured on the website.  Solimar continued this data collection throughout 2013, and documented a total annual increase in sales of $1,315,778 above theamount documented for the same period one year earlierof those participating businesses.

In addition, the Go Blue Central America project has trained more than 200 participating business owners and staff in tourism sustainability best practices. 

Conclusion

The Go Blue partners plan to continue to expand the website to include additional coastal and marine destinations throughout Central America, growing the project into a truly regional travel planning resource for visitors.

To watch a video describing the project, please visit: Go Blue Central America Introductory Video.