11. Local communities and tourism

Rural communities are often those with the most substantial levels of poverty. Increased interest from tourists who want to explore the unknown and partake in unique experiences can be used to develop community tourism. Besides the economic advantages, one of the key advantages of developing rural community tourism can be a reduction in migration, like when the Uros people decided to stay on their islands. If the local economy and job opportunities are improved, more people, specifically the younger generations, will be encouraged to stay with their community. This consequently reduces urban migration, which can cause problems such as overcrowding, increased crime rates, and city slums. Tourism development can be an attractive and rewarding option for rural communities.

Previous studies have highlighted that community tourism projects which attempt to contribute to poverty reduction face a variety of challenges, such as “lack of skills, low understanding of tourism, poor product quality and limited market access”. According to research from Sheffield Hallam University and confirmed by personal experience this is true for the majority of such projects, regardless of which organization or company has initiated, funded, and/or managed the project. As a result, project initiators face many difficulties from the outset.

When sustainable tourism helps rural communities it’s also called ‘Pro-poor Tourism’ (PPT). Pro-poor tourism is defined as tourism that generates net benefits for the poor. Benefits may be economic, but they may also be social, environmental or cultural. Pro-poor tourism is not a specific product or sector of tourism, but an approach to the industry. Strategies for making tourism pro-poor focus specifically on unlocking opportunities for the poor within tourism, rather than expanding the overall size of the sector. Three core activities are needed: increasing access of the poor to economic benefits (by expanding business and employment opportunities for the poor, providing training so they are in a position to take up these opportunities and spreading income beyond individual earners to the wider community. For some reason this type of tourism is sold too expensive for mainstream tourism. Marketing strategies and a changing mentality among part of the tourists are now contributing to an increased interest for pro-poor tourism. The possible move from mass tourism to rural pro-poor tourism has contributed to the growing concerns about the commodification of cultures. The point of rural tourism is that tourists can experience something new and out of their normal routine, but when communities get too much organized around tourism their dynamics will change. There’s a risk that the communities become yet another ‘product’ in tourism. Remember the complaints from tourists visiting the Uros Islands. This is a difficult effect to avoid.

11.1 The many challenges surrounding community tourism

Community tourism in the Amazon RainforestThe majority of tourism studies that apply social exchange theory concentrate on economic domains. They are concerned with the perceptions of people who benefit economically, and those who don’t benefit economically, without taking into account those who benefit (or do not benefit) non-economically. It is important to investigate how communities can holistically benefit from tourism, not only economically. This holistic approach comes with many challenges. Understanding the communities and the active participation of those communities is generally viewed as the key to long term success.

There are five main reasons why community participation is important in tourism planning and decision-making. The first of them is that communities are likely to become hostile towards tourism if they do not agree with particular developments. This disagreement is often caused by misunderstanding and wrong expectations. Therefore good communication is very important! The second reason is that the community is part of the tourism attraction and the assets of the community form part of the tourism product. This means the community must be involved in order to grant ‘access’ to it. In the third place it is necessary that the community is involved from the point of view of the protection of the community’s culture and natural environment. The fourth reason is the necessary community input so tourism will be sustainable and contributes to the socio-economic development of the community. Last but not least: involvement will prevent too much dependency from the community on the tourist project.

Working closely with the local community is essential for sustainable tourism to succeed. For tourism to have a positive effect on the local community’s social life, culture, and environment it is important to plan, communicate, and organize both tourism and the community in a sustainable way. Involving the local community is however easier said than done. Involving communities in the planning and operations of a tourism project leads to various difficulties. One of the most cited problems is often a lack of knowledge and expertise. Tourism is a multidisciplinary concept that requires careful planning, monitoring, and control. With little or no knowledge of such an industry, it is debated how a local community can develop an attractive, sustainable tourism product without assistance from an experienced person, company, or organization with extensive knowledge of the industry.

11.2 Dependency of the community

Old woman begging for money in CuzcoA lack of knowledge and expertise from local communities to initiate a tourism project by themselves often makes them dependent on external assistance for success. To avoid this situation as much as possible, Sylvia Borren states that such bodies must have clear values, functions, and roles laid out which aim to suppress the often subconscious desire of individuals to satisfy their own needs. This is a common problem with NGOs. Borren places the development organization debate in the context of emancipation and solidarity, to illustrate the inherent links between the two and highlight how problematic issues arise between the helpers and those being helped. This stresses the power relationships between communities that receive support from external organizations/companies.

Although Borren’s reference is specific to development organizations, it is argued that it is equally applicable to the private sector. She describes those in a state of emancipation, or the desire to become emancipated, in comparison with those who strive to combat injustice and suffering in an unfair world (solidarity). On a small scale, this is portrayed by the skinny poor African child, who receives a bowl of rice from a rich western woman. Problems arise when the issues and solutions are recognized and addressed by those showing solidarity, rather than those who wish to be emancipated. Borren asserts “the helper will then dominate those being helped, and so undermine their emancipation”. She continues, stating that “unfortunately, there are (too many) examples of escapism, personal gain, and a variety of unlikely forms of exploitation in the name of solidarity”. In other words, helping the poor to feel good about yourself. These are distinctly harmful to the emancipation process of the poor people concerned, and thus creating a dependency on the organization which has initially aided the process of emancipation. This is true of community tourism projects which have been initiated by an external organization. Dependency frequently happens due to too much involvement of an NGO, but can also happen with un-equal business relationships.

11.3 They’re rich and we’re poor

Another problem is caused by misconceptions from people in developing countries who believe that all people from developed countries are rich. Because of these biases poor communities often see western businesses either as incapable of being socially responsible in conjunction or simply as ‘caretakers’. Both of these views stand in the way of a sustainable working relationship. As a result, the local communities often have (too) high expectations. They expect companies to also set up social funds and help to finance non-tourist related community projects. Without reaching these expectations, communities could start to resent working with the tour agency, or even NGOs. As written before, for a sustainable community (tourist) projects to succeed all parties must have an equal understanding of the project. If a community doesn’t understand how tourism works, than the project will not be sustainable. There will be a big risk of resistance or apathetic and dependent behavior. This is what Borren refers to as the problem between solidarity and emancipation in a development organization and foreign aid projects. She argues that if people are constantly receiving assistance from external bodies, then they are not contributing to their own emancipation and development. Remember why it is better not to give money to beggars.

11.4 Different expectations

There are not only differences between needs and expectations from tour operators and NGOs compared to the communities, but also among the community members. For community tourism projects operated by tour operators or development organizations, community interpretations of impacts are an area which they must attempt to manage. The difficulty with this is well summarized by Schilcher, who claims that: “As poverty is a multi-dimensional phenomenon, different (poor) people define both problems per se, as well as the aspired solutions in different ways”. This presents a significant challenge for project initiators: not only may communities have different priorities in terms of what a tourism project should achieve, but they may also interpret the impacts differently from the organization or company that has assisted with the project. Similarly, community members interpret impacts differently depending on their relative proximity to the tourism activities and their involvement in it (Tosun).

The aforementioned negative and positive impacts of tourism on communities are often cited as a given, for example, the sometimes negative effects of tourism on the social structure of a community. Tosun criticizes this generic approach to evaluating impacts, claiming that “host perceptions…are shaped by various site-specific conditions”. Tosun explains that local impacts cannot be generically evaluated, and must always be presented as a case-by-case scenario. Interpretations of impacts can also be affected by the expectations of impacts. If a community expects tangible results in a short space of time and do not witness this, then any positive impacts of the project may be played down as a result of the community’s disappointment.

11.5 The bias of communities against tour agencies

Although many NGOs like to offer Rural Tourism as an extra source of income, some studies prove that tour agencies might be better equipped to offer sustainable rural tourism. The general opinion, however, is that NGOs have the responsibility to help poor communities, while tour agencies only want to earn money. As a result community members think that NGOs will listen better to their needs, while tour agencies only care about themselves. One respondent from a community involved in a project from the Care Ecuador NGO, stated that “Tour operators just want to make money…we would become something that they sell and I do not see how we would benefit”. This phrase is shared by many, but is it true?

11.6 NGOs versus Travel Agencies

Local farm in Otavalo EcuadorResearch from the Sheffield University compared the overall sustainability of three social tourist projects in Ecuador. Two of those were mainly set up with the help of NGOs, while the third was set up by a travel agency.

The Runatupari project was jointly initiated by a local farmer’s organization (UNORCAC) and Agriterra, a Dutch development organization. Agriterra provided part of the first funding to be able to start the project. Runatupari is based around home-stay tourism and local excursions in the Cotacachi region of Ecuador. The objectives from Runatupari have changed over the years, but it is stated that their purpose “is to improve living conditions of its members through development projects and programs such as agro-ecological production, reforestation, environmental conservancy, legal assessment, indigenous healthcare, intercultural bilingual education, cultural revival, and rural tourism”. Since the goal for Runatupari was to be independent, Agriterra officially withdrew from the project in 2005. They do maintain contact.

A Tourist Trail, a project initiated by Care Ecuador and primarily funded by Care UK, a development organization with its head office in the USA. The project is a ‘Tourist Trail’ with different community tourism visits and small tourism businesses in northern Ecuador. The main focus areas consisted of alternative tourism development, promotion of micro and small enterprises, protection and conservation of tourism resources, and the enhancement of a responsible tourism network. The fundamental goal was to contribute to local economic development by promoting the benefits of alliances and the positive impacts of partnerships. Care funded the marketing and development of the project until its withdrawal in August 2010. The Tourist Trail as a sustainable tourist attraction has failed.

Huaorani community tourism EcuadorThe Huaorani Eco Lodge, this project was initiated and primarily funded by Tropic Ecological Adventures, an Ecuadorian tour operator owned by a UK citizen. The project is based around a tourist eco-lodge and local excursions in the Ecuadorian Amazon Rainforest. Tropic owns and manages the eco-lodge but plans to transfer ownership in the future to the community. The vision of Tropic is to create a company that can offer tourists an alternative eco-tourism experience, contributes to conservation and the livelihoods of people they visit and strengthen the community’s case for refusing entry to oil companies. Their vision claims to “integrate tourism with ecological, economic, socio-cultural and political objectives; thus tourism is one element in a holistic development concept”. Tropic and the Huaorani are still working together. Although the Lodge is at the moment of writing (temporarily) closed due to oil drilling at their land borders.

11.7 Care versus Tropic

To show some of the different advantages and disadvantages between an NGO approach and the approach of a travel agency I quickly want to compare the differences between Care and Tropic. Care’s worldwide mission is fighting poverty, particularly through enhancing opportunities for the most vulnerable, socially excluded groups. Part of the organizational mandate focuses on what they describe as ‘priority’ countries or regions, which includes the Andean region of Latin America, where the Care Ecuador project in question is based. Using tourism as a strategy to achieve its objectives is easily justifiable. Gianluca Nardi, private sector advisor for Latin America (Care UK), stresses the link between tourism and poverty reduction, stating: “Tourism can be a very good income generating option in low-income communities. It’s something where women and poor minority groups can be involved. In the Andes, it involves a lot of indigenous people, who are some of the most vulnerable groups in these countries”. Although Care views tourism as part of their overall strategy, it nevertheless didn’t require properly skilled staff as used in other areas of their activities. Even Nardi (Care UK) admits that he has very little tourism experience, yet he was still in charge of coordinating their Ecuadorian “Tourist Trail” project from the UK. Van Rij (Agriterra) agrees, criticizing that “by most development workers, it [tourism] is considered not a very serious business”. Care was questioned as to why they do not work with private tour operators? Their response was based around the community’s fear of exploitation, which again, is another generalization. Rendon (Care Ecuador) stated: “We have also tried to involve them [tour operators], but that is quite difficult for us because there is a resistance in the majority of communities… They have traditionally seen private operators as people that want to exploit them, or make them do something that will not benefit the whole community”. It is this ‘stigma’ that is a significant barrier for private tour operators to overcome.

Huaorani community tourism in EcuadorTropic Ecological Adventures is determined to break that stigma. This tour operator was founded in 1994 by the British Andy Drumm. At the time Drumm was a diving instructor and naturalist guide in the Galapagos Islands and Amazon Rainforest. His vision was to create a company that could offer tourists an alternative eco-tourism experience. In return, the tourists would contribute to conservation and the livelihoods of people they visit and strengthen the community’s case for refusing entry from oil companies. With his experience and knowledge in tourism and the back-up support of his new travel agency Tropic Ecological Adventures, Drumm started the Huaorani Eco Lodge.

Sheffield’s research about the three projects mentioned above showed that there were several criticisms about the development sector. Most complaints were about bureaucracy, short-term involvement, and lack of technical and financial resources. Evidence has demonstrated that, although the development sector may still be preferable overall, the value of collaboration with the private sector can be appreciated. The respondents in favor also presented logical rationales for favoring private assistance. Research literature highlighted the importance of long-term commitment to projects and criticizes many development organizations for the short-term nature of their assistance. Of course, it is true that a private tour operator needs to make a profit, but this doesn’t have to be a bad motivation. Having to make a profit means that it is in the best interest of the tour operator to invest in a long term sustainable collaboration with the local community. Sheffield’s research showed that both Runatupari and Care didn’t have enough expertise to create an attractive tourist product, advertise and sell it. Tropic however proofed to be able to accomplish most of their initial goals. The Huaorani Eco Lodge even won several sustainability prices. Those who want to start their own community tourist project can find tips in Sustainable communities.

11.8 Green-washing

Greenwashing eco responsibilitiesA risk of the growing interest in Fair and Eco traveling is that it might be sold for the wrong reasons. It is suggested that many companies and organizations feel pressure to contribute to livelihoods. But many projects are implemented without careful planning or taking into account the specific needs of the area. The notion that perhaps these sorts of projects are becoming popular, for NGOs or the private sector to gain recognition or responsible tourism accreditation respectively, was palpable. Matthews (TOFT/ Discovery Initiatives) argued that particularly tour operators, assist projects or provide philanthropic donations to comply with regulations, which enable them to be awarded certificates in responsible tourism practices. As said earlier, there are still little or no official international regulations for sustainable rural projects, Eco-Lodges, and volunteer projects. Those who want can use these projects for marketing purposes, which have little positive impact on the actual development projects. This is what Matthews describes as “Green-Washing”. It is supported by a plethora of research studies on the failings of community-based tourism projects (e.g. Blackstock, 2005; Shepherd, 2002).

Drumm believed that more could be done to offer support, and criticized how UK buyers fail to educate their clients on the effects of tourism on livelihoods. He continued, claiming “I don’t think some places provide the necessary information to distinguish between good and bad lodges”. This criticism was echoed by other interviewees, including Fabre (ex-Tropic) who complained that foreign tour operators do not monitor their ground agents closely enough. Unfortunately, it is common practice in tourism to sell products based on inaccurate or misleading information.

To find a sustainable travel businesses you can check if they’re at least affiliated with international organizations such as World Wildlife Fund, the Nature Conservancy, Rainforest Alliance, the Center for Responsible Travel, etc. Real responsible travel and volunteer businesses also often promote their openness and transparency. Most will have details on their sustainability and corporate social responsibility initiatives placed on their website. A real “green” company or organization should be more than happy to answer any questions you may have about these initiatives.

Let me tell an example from personal experiences. About three years ago a Peruvian Amazon Lodge sold 1-week volunteer programs for 790 US$. The volunteer would be working around 4 hours a day. Their work would include: helping with the maintenance of the Eco Lodge and garden, help with wildlife monitoring, and teaching English to the local kids and staff of the lodge. Does this sound like volunteer work to you? It might be an extreme example, but it relates to Matthew’s argument about ‘green-washing’. In order to sell more tours, companies claim they are acting responsibly and contributing to livelihoods. However, often very little is done to assess if these are valid claims.

11.9 A problem resulting from capitalism

Capitalism makes people depending on moneyWhile all the intentions of Drumm and Tropic Eco-Adventures were right and their lodge was popular with tourists, there were still negative side effects. Some of the Huaorani still view Tropic as “a rich company”, which means they have high expectations of how much money Tropic can inject into the project. Subsequently, meeting these expectations is problematic for Tropic as they are essentially a small, independent tour operator, which funds the community projects using profits from the Galapagos tours (coupled with the small grants from USAID and the German GTZ for start-up capital). They are not, as the community often alluded to, a multi-national corporation with limitless funds. Fabre (ex-Tropic), stated that it did not matter how many times they would try and convey the small-scale nature of the business, the community continued to view them as a much larger corporation.

An article I read years ago explained shortly about another unexpected negative effect from their Huaorani Eco Lodge in Ecuador. Although their setup is a great example of how tourism should be working to be sustainable with the local economy and environment, one side effect was underestimated. Many local communities are not prepared to deal with the inevitable changes brought in by Western culture. One of these changes is earning money. No-one expected the negative social effect of earning money on the Huaorani families. During their whole existence, the Huaorani culture had always shared everything they had, but the arrival of tourists brought them capitalism. Several Huaorani families started selling handmade souvenirs to the guests of the Huaorani Lodge. Some made beautiful souvenirs that were popular with the guests, while others didn’t sell anything. This extra income caused different economic and social statuses among the Huaorani families. The once coherent Huaorani community started to divide.

In the book “Sustainable Hospitality and Tourism as Motors for Development”, 17 out of 17 Huaorani people said that money isn’t an important factor for a good life. Interaction with Western society has changed this and now made them partly dependent on money for clothing, health care, and education. In this case, it isn’t all to blame on the tourist project. Part of the dependency was already created by the oil companies which had crippled their forest and the Evangelic groups that affected their health (unknown diseases).

11.10 Tourist expectations and reality

Tourist expectations versus realityAs if the challenges to work together with a local community are not enough, you also need to be able to meet the expectations of your clients. This does not solely relate to the cultural experience. Most tourists, who are looking for an ‘authentic cultural experience’ don’t actually know what this means. They still want to have home-comforts, like a flushing toilet and shower with warm water. This means that a certain standard of hospitality and facilities is required, no matter how remote the location.

Many tour operators fail to inform about the possible discomfort their clients might experience with rural and community tourism. This is partly to blame on the lack of knowledge from the salesperson, and the lack of acceptance from the tourist. In return, tour agencies that offer authentic homestay at local communities in developing countries, receive far fewer clients. Therefore it is important to find a middle way. Offer basic comforts were possible and inform the clients well about any possible discomfort.

11.11 Should the remote communities learn English?

Remote community on Isla del Sol in BoliviaThe foremost complaint from tourists in all three projects from the Sheffield research was the language barrier. The lack of English education was profoundly evident in all communities visited. Many tourists stated that they do not venture off-the-beaten-track as they are unable to communicate to an extent that enables them to effectively enjoy or learn from the experience.

McNutt who works for ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) also expressed his concerns about the lack of English: “they would improve the product so much more if they spoke English. I’m worried about home-stay programs, the thing is you go there to be immersed but if there’s no English then it’s hard”. Those who had visited one of the projects in question confessed that they did find it frustrating but simultaneously felt guilty for expecting people to speak English, especially in such remote areas. Even though it should be obvious, the research proofed that it’s important to inform tourists who visit rural communities about the local language and lack of English. Another recommended approach could be to include a short language course before visiting the rural tourism ‘product’. This course can include a little phrasebook with the most commonly used words and phrases, combined with some background information about the community.

11.12 Are local communities able to organize tourism?

Of course, I can’t speak for all local communities around the world. But I dare to say that many communities will not be able to independently set up and maintain a successful tourist product. More than 16 years of experience in tourism in Latin America, combined with research and common sense shows that working in tourism is often underestimated. Especially in South America local tourist businesses (travel agencies, hotels, restaurants, transport) and even local governments often know very little of what the international tourist likes and expects. On top of that, the expectations vary between different foreign nationalities. For example, Dutch tourists generally book their tour relatively late and prefer more freedom and flexibility. While tourist groups from China sometimes organize their tour 18 months ahead and expect every detail to be planned. To develop a sustainable tourist project that attracts many different nationalities and cultures isn’t easy and often requires help from those nationalities and cultures to be understood.

Casa del Arbol in Baños EcuadorIt is on the other hand also true that some tourist destinations and products almost sell themselves. Recent examples of these fast-growing tourist destinations include the earlier mentioned Rainbow Mountains in Peru. Casa del Arbol on a hill behind the village of Baños in Ecuador is another example of a local tourist product that managed to sell itself through Social Media.

In the year 2000, one year after the ‘sleeping’ Tungurahua Volcano experienced its first eruption in modern times Carlos Sánchez decided to dedicate his life to monitoring the activities of this volcano. He constructed a small tree house to have a better view. In 2008 he attached a swing to his tree house to make it more attractive for his grandchildren to come and visit him. Inn 2014 National Geographic published a picture of a tourist on this swing with a smoking Tungurahua in the background. This picture resulted in world fame and tourism went up from only a few people a day to more than 100 people daily. It caused other places in Ecuador to build their own swings. Without previous intention, La Casa del Arbol has become a successful tourist product, which helps both the family of Sánchez and the town of Baños.

Both of the examples above show how quickly a tourist destination/ product can grow. This makes it understandable that tourism is often seen as the tool to quickly make money. However, these examples mainly show the power of (social) media and foreign influence. They show how quick tourism can grow, but also how little influence the local communities had on this. It were mostly some amazing pictures, the right timing, and luck.

11.13 Mutual advantages of long term partnerships

Local farmers on Taquile Island TiticacaThe Sheffield study shows that the three social tourist projects in Ecuador all three failed to provide adequate local managers. To me, this is no surprise. How can we expect to be able to turn local farmers into experienced tourist managers? This would be like sending a manager in tourism to a farm and expect him/ her to become a good farmer. It might work, but generally, it requires years of experience and different personalities to be a good farmer or a good tourist manager.

So my question is why do local communities have to become independent tourist businesses? As the partnership between the Huaorani communities and the Tropic Travel Agency in Ecuador show, they need each other. Even if the Huaorani get full ownership and control over the lodge and the touristic activities, it is questionable if they will be able to make it profitable. Tropic has the knowledge and contacts from years of experience in tourism and still, it is very hard for them to make the lodge profitable. Financial wise the Huaorani might even be gaining more from their partnership with Tropic than the other way around. If the partnership between the Huaorani and Tropic benefits both of them in a sustainable way, I see no reason for them to separate, other than pride of the community. The most important goal for community tourism shouldn’t be to provide the community with their independent project. It’s better to provide them with a long term sustainable working relationship based on mutual respect.

Tourism nature and cultureAlthough Julio Verne Travel in Riobamba Ecuador isn’t a local community project, but a small tour operator, their impact on the local community is significant. For over 25 years now this Dutch/ Ecuadorian owned tour operator provides many Ecuadorian families directly and indirectly of a living. Before the Corona crisis they had three employees on the payroll who received a good salary from which they could support their families. But it isn’t just those three salaries. As a well-integrated business, they also provide work for local guides, drivers, donkey drivers, horsemen, a bookkeeper, a webmaster, hotels, lodges, restaurants, local shops and markets, and even a local production company that produces specific outdoor clothing. It is good to observe how broadly this small travel agency spends its income from tourism within the local economy. So maybe it’s wrong to talk separately about community-tourism and tourism in general. No matter if the initiative comes originally from a local community, an NGO, or a (foreign) travel agent, in the end, it’s always more sustainable for all of them to have a good long-term working relationship. I even dare to draw the line further. For any business, small or big that wants to be sustainable it is important to strive for a good integration with the community and their environment.