Is Community Tourism a Good Thing?
Community tourism has existed for a long time, but it is receiving increasing attention as many travellers attempt to become more ethical and responsible. In development circles, it is often heralded as an attractive alternative economic income generator, which can supplement a community’s traditional activities. However, others are sceptical, viewing it as a potential destructive force which can cause the degeneration of traditional ways of life and the materialisation of culture, or in poorly administered cases, the ‘prostitution’ of culture. Community tourism is a highly complex issue, which can be hugely beneficial, but also quite damaging, and therefore needs to be planned and administered with care and precision. It is often difficult to separate the good operations, which directly benefit communities, from the bad, which tend to take advantage of the local population. Hopefully, Grassroots Journeys will help you make informed decisions about your travel destinations, which will allow you to positively contribute to a community’s economy, environment and culture, whilst minimising your impact.
Community tourism has fantastic potentials, in that it can allow for income generation, as well as environmental and cultural conservation. However, tourism can also have negative impacts, as objects and ideas brought from the ‘outside’ create conflicts with traditional activities and beliefs. Of course, cultures are not stagnant, and change is natural, but tourism, if administered irresponsibly, can either speed up this process of change, or introduce negative elements into the otherwise natural process.
Remote communities, and those of us who wish to support them, are in a difficult position. While many of us will be inclined to want to ‘protect’ or ‘conserve’ these groups, leaving them ‘pristine’ without influence from the outside world, we really have no right to do so, unless it is what the group specifically wants. Of course, if a group wishes to be left alone, we should do everything we can to respect that. However, my experience is that once the concept of money is introduced, most groups will want to participate in the economy in some way or another. Community tourism is often perceived as a non-intrusive way to engage in the economy while still maintaining their traditional ways of life.
Unfortunately, change and outside influence is inevitable in most parts of the world, including the jungles of the Amazon and Borneo. Unless the world changes its ways drastically, there is little we can do to stop it. What we can do, however, it ensure that these people are prepared and equipped, thereby able to choose how they wish to engage in the economy (which is inevitably going to include them in one way or another) rather than be included in a way others choose, for example through logging or oil or gas exploration. This preparation can ensure that interactions with outside forces is done on their terms, and ensure that it brings benefits to the whole community, rather than just a few individuals.
For this reason, we have chosen to only promote those communities which are already receiving visitors in some capacity. For the visitor, this means that the community is able to offer a more predictable service, and have an understanding of what travellers may want. More importantly, it means that the community is already prepared for the influences of outside visitors, and has already chosen to engage in the formal economy.
Numerous small remote communities which have hardly ever received any visitors have in the past asked us to promote them as a community tourism destination. Each time, we have politely declined. While they are free to engage in whatever activity they choose, and while change and outside influence is likely inevitable, we at Grassroots Journeys do not wish to be personally responsible for these changes.
I wish some areas of the world were immune to change and outside influence, and that some groups, who are honestly some of the happiest people I have ever met, could just be left alone and continue living the way they always have. The pessimist in me sees the destruction of their way of life as inevitable, but I have chosen, through Grassroots Journey’s selection policy, to not personally contribute to that destruction.
Does that mean that I see community tourism as necessarily destructive? Not really. In many instances, I see it as a great opportunity for groups to showcase their natural and cultural heritage, learn from other cultures and gain an income through maintaining their traditions. I see it as the lesser of many potential evils, where if groups are going to be forced into engaging with the outside world and economy, community tourism is better than the alternatives, which often include logging and oil or gas exploration. These latter activities may bring an income in the short term, but irreversibly destroy the land that many traditional groups are inextricably linked to, and therefore destroys not only the environment, but also the culture and way of life of thousands of people. In these scenarios, community tourism is a relatively nonintrusive way to make the money that is now necessary for survival, but without destroying their surroundings and way of life.
Again, if communities are actively engaged in the development and administration of community tourism, they are able to engage in the economy on their own terms, and to the extent that they choose, rather than being taken advantage of by multinational oil companies (or large scale tourism operations, for that matter).
It’s important to remember that the impact (positive or negative) of community tourism depends as much on the visitor, as it does on the community itself. As a ‘community tourist’ you should do your best to minimise your impact by for example respecting local customs, limiting the amount of objects you bring with you, and leaving nothing behind.
If you, the visitors, do your utmost to be responsible, inquisitive and aware, you will help groups maximise the benefits of community tourism while minimising the potential ‘damage.’
My hope is that, through Grassroots Journeys, we can create an international community of informed and ethical travellers who will support the fantastic community tourism initiatives that are featured on this website, contributing to intercultural understanding, economic diversification and environmental and cultural sustainability. If we can remember to be aware of the issues that tourism can create, and remember what a privilege it is to visit some of these places, we can make community tourism a far greater economic, cultural and environmental force that will benefit communities and travellers alike.