It was a rare day off for me, and my friend Ian had recruited a group of dive instructors to assist in a fish count survey for the environmental impact assessment of a new, proposed deep water cruise ship dock further east along the Honduran island. As I tallied another juvenile grouper on my underwater slate, I caught a flicker of movement out of the corner of my eye. I looked up, hovering a few feet above the reef we were surveying. Only meters away was the reef wall, plunging down into the depths, and beyond the wall was just open water. A beat later and the flicker came again, but this time more fully formed—a reef shark emerging out of the abstract blue from beyond the wall. The shark glided up close and then made a few passes around me. My dive buddy, one breath away from me (safety first!) was doing a little victory dance. A second shark appeared from behind us. Even though I knew the sharks were harmless, my heart was pounding with excitement. Such a rare treat; my buddy and I stopped surveying for a moment to enjoy the two sharks cruising between us.
I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen to these sharks, to all the other marine creatures that called this reef home, once a large swath of reef was carved out to make way for ships. For decades the residents and government of Roatan, Honduras debated the value and trade-offs of participating in the cruise ship industry. Working on the reef surveys was one of my first experiences confronting the environmental, economic, and socio-political questions that Hondurans faced. Where did I fit in? Was it even my place to object? At the time, I still wanted to go back to New York City and become a museum curator. I had no background in marine biology or environmental science. Was there really anything I could contribute to Roatan in a meaningful way?
I spent another year as a SCUBA instructor in Roatan before moving on to Thailand (Koh Phi Phi) and Indonesia (Wakatobi, Sulawesi). In all three countries, I witnessed rampant, unplanned overdevelopment, unmanaged waste, leakages (when the money coming in drains right back out), tensions between tourists and residents, and other issues related to tourism which spurred me to learn more about sustainable development. When done well, tourism can support the social, economic, and environmental needs of a community, but too often tourism develops haphazardly, emphasizing economic benefits at the expense of the social and environmental welfare of the destination. I experienced this firsthand in Koh Phi Phi where overdevelopment led to a literal cesspool of sewage in the center of one of the most beautiful islands in Thailand. Knowing that international tourism continues to grow and that people are traveling to farther and more remote locations, I feel compelled to continue learning about the tourism industry and how it can be more sustainably managed.When I left Indonesia I was still unsure of how to learn more about sustainable tourism development. I was a scuba instructor who dabbled in conservation with a history degree and a minor in French. A family friend pointed me toward The George Washington University, where I met Dr. Don Hawkins, a professor in the Master of Tourism Administration program at the GW School of Business. Within months, I was enrolled in the MTA program focusing on Sustainable Destination Management. Now that I have completed my MTA degree, armed with my new wealth of knowledge, I hope to help emerging destinations develop sustainable and profitable tourism industries, especially in coastal and biodiverse regions.
MBAs Without Borders is the perfect opportunity for me to apply my skills and knowledge. I feel so lucky to have the opportunity to strengthen the tourism industry in emerging markets. Working with another MBA volunteer, John, will also be wonderful in that we come from different business backgrounds. I know collaboration, utilizing both of our areas of expertise, will allow us to deliver even better outcomes for the local community.
Before I had ever conceived of sustainable tourism as my career path, I was drawn to museum curation because of its ability to convey a message, capture a feeling, and translate the past into something immediately experiential for the viewer, bringing history to life. Though the subject matter is different, in helping destinations, my goals have not shifted as much as it might appear. I can’t wait to work with communities to help them shape the tourism potential into experiences that enrich the lives and perspectives of visitors and residents alike.
Annessa Kaufman is an MBAs Without Borders Advisor currently serving as a Tourism Development Specialist in Sri Lanka. A graduate of the Master of Tourism Administration program at the George Washington School of Business, Annessa seeks to work with emerging destinations in developing sustainable and profitable tourism industries.