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Community-based tourism: a tool for sustainable development

Responsible Tourism

Argentina, Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Panama, Peru, Mexico, Nicaragua, Uruguay

Mass tourism can be an incredibly destructive activity with wide reaching consequences. However, fortunately for all, local communities across the developing world have been setting up ecotourism 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.

Community-based tourism (CBT) is not something new

CBT 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 ecosystems. 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. Often, their goal is to improve their standard of living and preserve the environment through tourism.

These projects offer services such as accommodation, excursions (bird-watching, trekking, horse-riding, whale-watching, etc.) , traditional gastronomy, ecotourism 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 ecosystems.

Examples of community-based tourism initiatives

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 Sierra Nevada and the Mayan Riviera in Mexico, or by rural communities in the beautiful desert of Salta (Argentina) or in the exuberant Costa Rica. 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, you can read these splendid Guardian features about our tours: Colombia’s Lost City: lore of the jungle (indigenous tourism in the Sierra Nevada), Homestays in Argentina: how ethical holidays are protecting a way of life (rural tourism in Salta) and Meet the Mayans: a tour of the real Yucatán, Mexico.

Tourism entrepreneurs? No, environmental and culture conservationists

These local communities are not becoming tourism 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.

Responsible 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 CBT networks, which in turn set up co-operatives, associations, social enterprises, travel agencies and tour operators. All of these have formal legal structures in place, are managed by the local communities themselves and commercialise CBT touristic services.

We also saw the emergence of local, responsible tour operators. Private tourism companies that, usually under a social enterprise model, work directly with the CBT initiatives and actively promote sustainable tourism. Using this platform, you can browse examples of tours and choose your next destination, and then contact directly a local, responsible tour operator to organise your holiday or vacation with them. We have only one trusted tour operator per country and constantly monitor their performance, as well as our travellers’ feedback, so you can book with confidence by knowing you are in good hands. Ready to start planning? See our sustainable tourism destinations!

You know it is truly rural community-based 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

We’d love to hear your thoughts and opinions, or to share your own experiences. Please visit our Facebook page and leave us a comment! You can also subscribe to our quarterly newsletter to keep up to date with sustainable and responsible tourism news.

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