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Community-based tourism: a tool for sustainable development

Responsible Tourism

Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Colombia


Welcome to our very first blog post! Since we launched Sumak Travel a few years ago, we’ve been writing about responsible tourism, social enterprise and Latin America in lots of places. We thought time to have our own blog had arrived, so we went for it. To kick off, we re-publish a revised version of an article about community-based tourism I wrote for our friends at last year. As they sadly took down their blog, we wanted to make sure the content remained available. Enjoy reading and leave us your comments on our FB page.

Mass tourism can be an incredibly destructive activity with wide reaching consequences. However, fortunately for all, local communities across the developing world have and are setting up eco-tourism projects; a truly viable solution to some of the most urgent problems faced by human kind today, such as global warming, deforestation and land speculation.

Horse back-ridding with rural communities in the south of Chile

Horse back-ridding with rural communities in the south of Chile


Community-based tourism (CBT) is not something new; it is probably the oldest way of conducting tourism. So, what exactly is it all about? Let’™s start with a simple definition.

By community we mean a group of people living in the same place and having something in common, be it culture, economic activity or simply the land and its eco-systems. In most cases they are farmers, fishermen, indigenous peoples, artisans or quilombolas (Brazilian backcountry settlement founded by people of African origin) living in remote, beautiful and well-preserved rural areas. The touristic potential within their land and traditions was so evident that they decided to create infrastructures to host travellers and to set up community-led projects to improve their standard of living and preserve the environment through tourism.

These projects offer services such as accommodation, traditional gastronomy, eco-tourism and cultural activities. A fair-trade logic applies, so tourists are paying a fair price in exchange for high quality and often unique products and services, within a context of transparency and equality. For travellers it is a genuine and rich experience. They get to know the local traditions, get involved in cultural activities and have the opportunity to see unspoilt nature and eco-systems.

For example, in our Atacama Desert Tour (Chile) travellers stay with the Lickan Antay indigenous people in the middle of the desert. Through authentic cultural activities, visitors gain an understanding of the Lickan Antay ancestral traditions and their strong link with nature. Similar experiences are offered by indigenous peoples in the Colombian Amazon Rainforest and Tayrona National Park or farmers in the beautiful desert of Salta (Argentina). Perhaps, the most rewarding aspects of CBT are the personal link visitors create with their hosts and the chance to see how this fair tourism is empowering them and their communities. To learn more, read these splendid Guardian features about our tours:

– Colombia’s Lost City: lore of the jungle (indigenous tourism in Tayrona National Park)

– Homestays in Argentina: how ethical holidays are protecting a way of life (rural tourism in Salta)

Llamas in Rio Grande - Atacama Desert - Chile

Llamas in Rio Grande – Atacama Desert – Chile


Touristic entrepreneurs? No, environmental and culture conservationists

These local communities are not becoming touristic entrepreneurs. Farmers still want to grow vegetables and breed animals, indigenous peoples still want to live their culture and preserve their traditions, and fishermen just want to fish. CBT is a source of complementary income (on average only 15%) that they use to improve their standard of living and to preserve their culture and eco-systems. For that reason they are guided by a set of principles, among which we find income redistribution, transparency and capacity building. In other words, they are doing the polar opposite of mass tourism.

In fact, in many cases CBT is the best and most effective defence against mass tourism and land speculation (mining, mega-projects, agro-businesses, etc). It is well known that stronger communities have much more political influence and visibility to raise awareness of their rights and defend their territories. For an example, you can read this case study of Prainha do Canto Verde, a fishermen town and CBT initiative in Brazil which has been in operation for over twenty years now. Read also our blog post about their initiative: Little Fishing Villages, Big Vision of Ecotourism in Brazil.

Community-based tour operators: a step forward

Thousands of similar CBT initiatives have been flourishing in recent decades, but they still have the problem of a lack of visibility. For travellers it is difficult to find these initiatives and virtually impossible to book a tour with them. In recent years though, in particular in Latin America, we saw a beautiful movement taking place: local communities created regional and national CBET networks, which in turn set up co-operatives, associations, social enterprises, travel agencies and tour operators. All of these have proper legal structures in place, are managed by the local communities themselves and commercialise CBT touristic services. For more details on and examples of community-based tour operators, you can read this article I wrote for the International Ecotourism Society (TIES): A Different Approach: The Good Living Tourist Model.

How to get involved?

The good news is that CBT is fair, transparent and affordable. We combine rural CBET with visits to the main cities and sights of each country. For travellers interested in social innovation, we also include guided visits to social and environmental projects in areas like microfinance, social inclusion, co-operatives and fair-trade. You can see our sustainable tourism destinations and contact us or any of our local partners in Latin America.

We’d love to hear your thoughts and opinions, or to share your own experiences. Please visit our Facebook page an leave us a comment!

Jangadas on the beach at Prainha do Canto Verde - Brazil

Jangadas on the beach at Prainha do Canto Verde – Brazil

You know it is truly rural community tourism if it*:

1- Combines natural beauty and the daily life of rural communities;

2- Promotes productive and sustainable practices;

3- Adapts to rural life and preserves the welcoming, relaxed, and rustic atmosphere of the countryside;

4- Is kept going by local initiatives and local people and strengthens local organisations;

5- Employs local people, distributes benefits even-handedly and supplements farming income

6- Promotes land ownership by the local population

* Adapted from the Costa Rican Association of Community-based Rural Tourism (ACTUAR)

Special thanks to for the Chile pictures!

WTM Responsible Tourism Tourism Concern Muchbetter adventures The international Ecotourism Society
Ethical Trekking The Travel Foundation Social Enterprise UK

We've signed up to the Travel Foundation's Forum and have committed to take action on sustainability within our business.