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 community based 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. And better still: discerning travellers can be part of this solution.
Community-based eco-tourism (CBET) 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, it means 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*, 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 tourists 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 tourists 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 an eco-trip to San Pedro de Atacama (Chile) travellers stay with the Lickan Antay indigenous people in the middle of the desert. Through authentic cultural activities such as Atacamenian astronomy and storytelling, 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 or in Lake Titicaca (Bolivia), fishermen in the Brazilian North-East, farmers in the desert of Salta (Argentina), rural communities in Chiloé (Chile), and many more. Perhaps the most rewarding aspects of CBET are the personal link visitors create with their hosts and the chance to see how this fair tourism is empowering them and their communities.
Touristic entrepreneurs? No, environmental and cultural 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 still want to fish. CBET 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 ethical 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 CBET is the best and most effective defence against mass tourism and land speculation (mining, mega-projects, agro-businesses, etc). Furthermore, it is well known that stronger communities have much more political influence and visibility to raise awareness of their rights and to defend their territories. For more details, you can read this case study of Prainha do Canto Verde, a successful CBET initiative in Brazil which has been in operation for over twenty years now.
Community-based tour operators: a step forward
Thousands of similar CBET initiatives have been flourishing in recent decades, but still suffer from a lack of visibility. For travellers it is difficult to find these initiatives and virtually impossible to book a trip with them. In recent years though, particularly in Latin America, we have seen a beautiful movement emerge: local communities creating 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 CBET tourism services.
How can you get involved?
The good news is that CBET is fair, transparent and affordable. Responsible tour operators based in Europe are offering eco-trips made up of a combination of rural CBET and visits to the main cities and sights of each country. ETOG members such as Sumak Travel, specialises in offering this type of community based tourism trip within Latin America, which can also include guided visits to social and environmental projects in other areas (microfinance, social inclusion, fair-trade, etc.). On the website, you can find Sumak’s eco-trips to Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile and Colombia; they can all be tailor-made and combine several countries, including Ecuador and Peru.
Characteristics that define rural community tourism:
- Integrating natural beauty and the daily life of rural communities into a tourism experience
- Promoting productive sustainable practices within the tourism offerings
- Adapting to the dynamics of rural life and preserving the welcoming, relaxed and rustic atmosphere that characterises it
- Maintaining local initiatives and participation and strengthening local organisations and communities
- Integrating local people into the economic activity, distributing benefits even-handedly, and supplementing farming income
- Promoting land ownership by the local population