Friday, April 18th, 2014   Fieldnotes Blog feed

Is Community Tourism a Good Thing?

Tsachila shaman 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.

Linda on a raft in the Amazon 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.

Linda with some children in Siecoya RemolinoNumerous 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.

Pet monkey 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.

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5 Responses to “Is Community Tourism a Good Thing?”

  2. Richa says:

    I agree with Pete here. I am sharing this article published in The Kathmandu Post and it is written by Bhuwan Thapaliya cause it is informative.

    Talking tourism
    Bhuwan Thapaliya
    APR 11 –
    People say Nepal’s sex-economy has been on the rise, so much so that there is now talk of Nepal turning into the latest hotspot for sex tourism. Of late, analysts are said to be of the view that Nepal’s sombre tourism industry has been replaced by sex tourism. Is this a fact or a myth?

    According to John Frederick, an expert quoted in The Economist, on South Asia’s sex trade, “Ten years ago the sex industry was underground in Nepal. Now it’s like Bangkok, it’s like Phnom Penh.” What are we to make out of these statements with Nepal Tourism Year 2011 just around the corner? Is Nepal really a growing haven for the flesh trade?

    No doubt, tourism is one of the largest industries in Nepal — a major source of foreign exchange and revenue. According to estimates by the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) and UK-based Oxford Economics (OE), Nepal’s travel and tourism economy is ranked number 138 in absolute size worldwide, 145 in relative contribution to national economies and 115 in long-term (10-year) growth out of 181 countries.

    The contribution of travel and tourism to the gross domestic product is expected to rise from 6.0 percent (Rs. 52.7 billion) in 2009 to 6.3 percent (Rs. 113.2 billion) by 2019. Its contribution to generating employment opportunities are mammoth, and the contribution of the travel and tourism economy to employment is expected to rise from 497,000 jobs in 2009 (4.7 percent of total employment) to 677,000 jobs (5.0 percent of total employment) by 2019, according to the WTTC/OE report.

    The Nepal government has been actively promoting tourism in Nepal; the romance of the snow clad mountains and the lure of the breathtaking landscapes continue to attract tourists from around the globe who have now become a pivotal part of Nepal’s economy. But tourism is a double-edged sword. Tourists come here to see natural wonders of the country and our traditional ways of life.

    With them comes money, but they also bring influences that may get difficult for our people to overlook. Then, the dilemma erupts: The tourists help us survive, but, in the long run, their money and influences may erode the very things they come here to see. Nepali culture may not be quite the same tomorrow as it is today. Luckily, to date, Nepal has managed to survive into modern times with many of its customs and traditions intact. Some argue that culture is such a fragile and difficult thing to preserve. But one has to remember that in preservation of our culture lies our true identity. The mantra is to find a balance. As one young lady once told me, “I go to the temple and I go to the disco. Sometimes I wear a salwar kameez, sometimes a micro-mini. That’s how I try to balance different aspects of my lifestyle.”

    Tourism can be a boon to our economy, but it can be a bust if it destroys the native culture and environment. Considering this, Nepal must ask, what type of tourists it wants — certainly not paedophiles and sex seekers if it is to boost its economy and preserve its rich cultural heritage.

  3. Sarah M. says:

    I recently watched the documentary called Crude and couldn’t believe the damage oil drilling has done in the Amazon region. I hope communities can maintain a good standard of living (I mean access to education/medicine etc) from tourism or sustainable agricultural practices rather than letting oil companies buy them out with false promises and then start destroying their back yards! Haven’t been on a “community tourism” trip, but after watching the horror of crude I think I might have to test it out on my next trip!

  4. Pete says:

    I would have to agree that community tourism can have a very negative impact on communities when handled irresponsibly by partner members, or when the communities themselves have not received the support and training needed to accommodate and deal with visitors. That said, I have personally experienced some great community tourism initiatives that really do benefit both visitors and the local community members equally. It is for this reason that I also have a strong belief in the cultural, economic and environmental benefits that community tourism can offer when properly done.

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