Tourism as a Positive Force for Local Communities
Has the COVID-19 pandemic put an end to what was previously considered “business as usual” in travel and tourism?
As the industry continues on its slow and uneven paths to recovery, we are seeing some great examples that represent the spirit of “building back better” (despite the mantra being overused and clichéd). These examples help us visualize how the impacts of tourism, when managed well, can be a positive force for destinations, supporting local sustainable community development, and inspiring ripple effects of positive social impacts.
In this panel, we’ve asked industry trailblazers and change makers to join us, sharing their own experiences, highlighting concrete examples of how tourism can be a positive force for local communities. These examples and stories serve as important reminders of the potential that tourism has to transform communities for better, and of our collective responsibility to use that power wisely.
There are a lot of great examples that show tourism can be a positive force for local communities. What are some of the most inspiring examples you have experienced?
Climate justice for truly representative climate commitments
We now live in a world where completely rethinking the very purpose of what we do is no longer radical. We’ve all had to question things we had previously taken for granted. The pandemic has thrown at us varying degrees of existential crises that have led to many difficult decisions, countless losses, and in some fortunate cases, new opportunities.
One of those new opportunities that has emerged during the pandemic (despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, or maybe because of the realities exposed by the pandemic) is our industry's own dedicated climate movement.
Starting at the end of 2019 as a small group of industry leaders calling attention to the climate crisis, "Tourism Declares a Climate Emergency" has created a space for dialogue, a global community of industry professionals supporting each other, and a strong unified voice promoting climate action across the industry. The significance of the impact that this community has achieved - leading to the Glasgow Declaration, which was announced during COP26 - cannot be overstated.
To me, one of the most important and exciting aspects of this movement - which I hope to continue to help grow - is its work focused on climate justice. Tourism Declares, its members and partners are working to ensure our industry's climate commitments are truly representative of the diverse experiences and stories of what the climate emergency means to people and communities around the world, especially of those who are most severely affected by the crisis they've done the least to cause.
With the very real and increasingly devastating impacts of the climate crisis, it's easy to feel hopeless. But I find hope and inspiration in the fact that a grassroots movement can indeed move the whole industry.
Fostering conservational efforts through community collaboration
Tourism can meet global climate targets and be a force for good, when delivered to conserve natural areas, support the well-being of communities, and preserve the natural and cultural heritage. At The Long Run we guide our members via the 4Cs: Conservation, Community, Culture and Commerce. We also provide a network for collaboration.
In response to the climate crisis, the carbon market has accelerated in recent years. However, carbon credits can incentivize large scale monocultures such as pine trees which have quick but short-term yields, leading to a loss of biodiversity, long-term soil degradation, and increased risk of fire and disease. The Long Run believes we need to search for more holistic solutions beyond carbon and tackle climate not just by mitigating CO2 emissions, but by accounting for biodiversity protection.
Collaboration is key for increasing the positive impact on the environment, that is why it is essential to empower local communities to take action in conservation and to share and exchange knowledge with all stakeholders.
Tahi Eco-Retreat, a member of The Long Run, offers a great example of this. They’ve implemented a comprehensive carbon sequestration programme by re-establishing 87.4 acres of wetlands and planting more than 349,000 native tree species. Tahi's pioneering Biosphere Value Index monitors the longevity of the tree, the bird attraction, the invertebrate value and the carbon storage capacity. Through this study, Tahi can prove that investing in biodiverse forests not only results in greater carbon storage (from trees, leaves litter, wetlands and soil), but also in ecosystem conservation, economic and community well-being, and long-term sustainability.
Another great example of the importance of collaborating with local communities to foster conservation efforts is Batu Batu Eco Island Resort in Mersing, Malaysia. Batu Batu, as a founding member of the Sustainable Travel Mersing steering committee, is helping the development of Mersing as a sustainable destination. As and supporting Mersing on the way to becoming a certified Sustainable Destination according to the Global Sustainable Tourism Council standards by 2024. Recently the team contributed to the Cultural & Bio-Asset Mapping study to identify recovery strategies for Mersing’s tourism sector post-pandemic. The outcomes indicate that the local community support the idea of developing the region as a tourism destination but only when it helps preserve the natural and cultural authenticity of the place.
Pro-community initiatives from around the globe
I would like to mention three inspiring examples from my personal travel, study and work experience:
1. Reality Tours, India: I went on a tour of Dharavi, Mumbai with them several years ago because I heard they were a good example of "pro-poor tourism" that was not voyeuristic in nature. I was slightly sceptical before the tour but my concerns were very soon allayed after meeting our guide, learning about his background and the impact leading these tours has had on his life and the lives of others in the Dharavi community. We were given a different perspective of one of the world's biggest slums, which were presented to us not as crowded places full of poverty and crime, but as a vibrant city without which the rest of Mumbai would be less productive.
2. Elephant Valley Project (EVP), Mondulkiri, Cambodia: I spent a year working in eastern Cambodia back in 2014 and knew in advance the amazing work they were doing to protect elephants and the forest those elephants call home. What really surprised and impressed me though was the extent to which the EVP supported the indigenous Bunong community who have long been the caretakers of elephants in the region. Members of the community are fully integrated into the EVP's project - they work with the elephants, they are trained to conserve and protect the forest - and they benefit from tourists' income on a wider scale. The EVP uses funds from tourists to support local education and health care initiatives. The managers even wake up in the middle of the night to take community members to the hospital and cover the costs of their treatment if necessary!
3. Unseen Tours, London, England: My fascination with this model of walking tours led by people formerly, or still, living on the streets is what drove me to write my masters thesis about Unseen Tours in 2013. This is a great example of tourism making a direct positive impact on people from the heart of the local community. They provide guides with training to lead guided tours as well as to re-enter regular work, they help the guides build much-needed confidence, and they change visitors' perceptions of London's homeless community.
Community-based tourism models for economic growth
Over the past ten years of writing about the Caribbean region, which started a decade before I joined Skift, I sought out and experienced several examples of how tourism can be a force for good. One of those is the Sonido del Yaque riverside ecolodge, owned and run by a group of rural women in a mountainside village near Jarabacoa, in central Dominican Republic. The women work together as a cooperative, and they received funding over the years from international bodies to expand and green the lodge — they use hydroelectric power — as well as create experiences for tourists. Aside from funding lodge improvements, the tourism revenue over the years has helped to support community projects such as building a clinic for their village, and paying for the women's kids' education, most of whom are now university students or graduates. The lodge continues to operate now after a long pause from the pandemic. But it’s one of the best examples of the community-based tourism model, which in my mind is also the best way to experience a destination in a way that benefits both residents and tourists, while contributing to economic growth for rural communities.
Another example is the role that tourist funds play in the preservation of natural areas and resources, while also opening the door to opportunities for locals to embrace stewardship and leadership in environmental management. That’s the case of the Wallings Nature Reserve in Antigua. An inspiring story of a local, Refica Atwood, who hated seeing her favorite hiking spot getting polluted with garbage and plastics. It drove her to engage in years of cleaning up the site while advocating to get the state to declare this last remaining piece of forest tract in Antigua a protected area, and getting members of her community involved. She’s now the executive director of this reserve, quite a feat for a village girl who hadn’t finished high school as a single mom at the time. Wallings Nature Reserve now offers multiple trails of varying difficulty at a cost for all visitors to explore the fauna and the stunning views, while residents from the community get to sell their locally made drinks, snacks and products on site. It’s a win-win for all involved.
Another excellent example of tourism’s benefit is the ability it has to preserve cultures, when visitors in turn support authentic cultural activities. The Palmento Grove Cultural & Fishing Lodge in Hopkins, Belize, is a great example of this – where you get to spend the entire day immersed in Garifuna cultural activities, from cooking a traditional dish in a traditional kitchen to drumming and fishing. Tourism revenues help this Indigenous woman-owned business to continue offering this cultural exchange, but also to fund other activities such as festivals, while also providing for jobs.
There are many ways I’ve seen tourism as a positive force for growth when it’s done in a way that invests in host communities, providing them with the knowledge, training and resources needed to launch their own businesses if they choose. That’s what sustainable tourism is, in a nutshell — it’s about empowerment from the bottom up beyond menial jobs and having locals shape the type of tourism they want to offer, while also knowing their why.
Training and ripple effects in community employment
Earth-Changers.com is all about positive impact sustainable tourism, so every one of our partners is inspiring and using tourism as a force for good in their communities. On our site you’ll find examples that help poverty, hunger, water and sanitation, health, education, climate mitigation, inequalities, and energy – often vital to help power solutions.
For TrainingAid here, we’d like to highlight the importance of employment and capacity building.
All our partners pride themselves on their local staff – it’s a huge benefit of course for staff to have jobs, for income and dignity, but also for their families and community, health, education, economy and environment!
In Madagascar, one of the poorest and most climate-ravaged countries on Earth where most people live in multi-dimensional poverty, our partner SEED Madagascar created, in 2012, a collective to provide embroidery and finance training to 11 women. It went on to train more women, increasing marketing capacity and growing sales. In April 2020 it became an independent cooperative, and it has supported more than 95 women since Jan 2019 with sustainable livelihood, each supporting an average of 11 more people in the community!
As a result, the women are able to buy better food, they can go to the doctor more often for medical help, their whole families’ health improves, meaning their children are not off school for ill-health, improving their education, and future employment prospects. They also turned their hands to mask making for the pandemic. In addition, the embroidery practice promotes the local tradition, culture as well as supporting wildlife guardianship and preservation. Of course, the global recognition and sales income create enormous pride - all from training just 11 women in embroidery accessories!
Employment and training may seem like a pebble drop in the ocean but ripples really can create waves. Travelers can support these efforts by visiting the now-independent embroidery cooperative, and volunteering opportunities are available in conservation for those with relevant skills to contribute.
Unlocking tourism's power for community empowerment
Tourism’s potential for sustainable growth is rooted in human connection—to the people, the destinations and the natural environments we interact with when we travel. And they are all interconnected. Hospitality must first acknowledge it wants to be a force for good in communities, and if people, places and the planet are at the center, there is much good to be done. By taking a proactive approach, working with policymakers and local communities, we can better understand each community’s unique needs and work together to identify sustainable solutions. We have an opportunity to elevate a tourism model based on community empowerment, aimed at creating economic, social, and environmental value.
Airbnb’s purpose is to connect people from around the world, and the Airbnb Entrepreneurship Academy is an example of how this value can be delivered with community at the center. Airbnb partners with local nonprofits and government agencies to unlock the power of tourism and help empower the next generation of tourism entrepreneurs. The Academy program began in South Africa focused on skills development for women and youth in township and rural communities who are interested in tourism. The program was recently offered in the US in partnership with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in the Western Mountain region of North Carolina, a rural and scenic destination with high tourism demand. As of June 2021, over 300 people have participated in the program (70% women), earning more than $220,000 while providing outstanding hospitality (1,500+ five-star reviews).
This partner-led model is tailored to the needs of the community and provides opportunities for economic empowerment. Communities benefit when tourism dollars stay in the community. Homes Hosts on Airbnb keep up to 97% of the price they set. This can have a tremendous impact especially in places outside of traditional hotel zones and in emerging markets, and because Hosts are utilizing their homes, adds tourism infrastructure without the need to build additional infrastructure. Travelers want local and authentic experiences, and those that are community-centered, led, and empowered are best positioned to deliver.
Creating alternate income for host communities
When done sustainably and ethically, travel can create lasting positive impacts for travelers and host communities alike. Yet, with global vaccine inequity and new coronavirus variants ravaging the world, it is important to find ways tourism can support the recovery of travel destinations and empower local and Indigenous communities in low-income and lower middle-income countries when people are not traveling to those places.
That’s why RISE Travel Institute is offering online destination courses, aimed at providing benefits both for travelers and the host destinations. Designed to take travelers on a deep dive into the history and culture of the destinations as well as some current social, economic, political and environmental justice issues affecting the local populations, these courses intend to break away from the mainstream colonial narratives about these places and debunk any myths and misconceptions about these cultures. Not only do travelers have the opportunity to learn about their future destinations in a profound way and become more culturally sensitive and respectful, the host communities also have access to an alternative income when visitor numbers are low, and a way to diversify their income in general.
RISE Travel Institute collaborates with value-aligned partners that work directly with local and Indigenous communities to create online courses on their destinations. The objective of these courses is multifold:
- Generating a sustainable revenue stream for destination partners and the communities they support through student enrolment all year round.
- Increasing the visibility of grassroots sustainable development projects.
- Amplifying the voices of local and Indigenous communities around the world by providing them a platform to share their own stories.
Etnica, an award-winning sustainable tourism business based in Guatemala, is RISE’s first educational partner for the destination course series. The inaugural destination course - Mindful Travel in Guatemala - discusses how the legacy of colonialism, war, and armed conflicts continues to oppress Indigenous and Afro-Latino identities and how mainstream tourism narratives appropriate culture, commodify heritage and objectify the Mayan Indigenous communities. The course will also celebrate the resilience of local and Indigenous communities and showcase some women/community/Indigenous-led tourism initiatives that travelers can experience and support in their future travels to Guatemala.
This educational program is an example of how tourism industry players can help uplift vulnerable communities around the world, while providing travelers the knowledge and the tools to have a more transformative and enriching experience when they resume traveling again.