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Community-based tourism: how your trip can make a positive impact on local people

Community-based tourism can reap great rewards. Done well, it enables local organisations to protect precious habitats, preserve unique culture and empower grassroots employees.

By Francisca Kellett
Published 24 Apr 2022, 09:00 BST
Ccaccaccollo Women’s Weaving Cooperative community, Sacred Valley.

Ccaccaccollo Women’s Weaving Cooperative community, Sacred Valley.

Photograph by Getty Images

In the mid-1990s, the remote community of Klemtu in Canada’s British Columbia had to make a choice. Hit hard by the collapse of the fishing and forestry industries, unemployment was rocketing, and options were running out. But they knew there were two things in the Great Bear Rainforest that you couldn’t get anywhere else: their own Indigenous culture and the rare, ghostly-white Kermode bear, also known as the Spirit Bear. And that’s how Spirit Bear Lodge was born: a showcase of the Kitasoo/Xai’xais First Nation, and an entry point for exploring the extraordinary wilderness of the largest temperate rainforest on Earth, with the added benefit of spotting those elusive bears, along with wolves, whales and brown bears. Today, the lodge is a blueprint for conservation-based, community-based tourism, with a string of successes under its belt: the surrounding rainforest is now protected from logging, bear hunting has been banned and the community has a steady income. 

It has also, they say, fuelled a cultural renaissance. “The lodge has created opportunities for young and old to thrive in their homelands, while educating people from around the world with our rich culture,” explains Roxanne Robinson, guest services manager at the lodge. Guests learn about Kitasoo/Xai’xais culture from the lodge staff and their guides on wildlife expeditions, kayaking tours and cultural visits, while younger community members drop by as part of the Súa Educational Foundation programme. 

“Súa means ‘thunder’ in our language, and they come to share stories, songs and dances with guests in our traditional big house,” says Robinson. Guests not only have an incredible experience, but they can also sleep easy knowing that their tourist dollars are doing good.

Doing good, if reports are anything to go by, is something we all want to do more of. According to an American Express poll last year, 72% of travellers want to help boost tourism revenue in local economies. And the latest sustainability report by Booking.com showed that 73% of travellers would like to have authentic experiences that are representative of the local culture; 84% believe that preservation of cultural heritage is crucial; and 76% want to be sure that their economic impact is spread equally throughout society. 

So, being a responsible traveller is no longer just about protecting the environment or reducing our carbon footprints. It’s about how our tourist dollars can do good in the places we visit. It’s about communities. It’s taking the ‘buy local’ mantra — supporting your neighbourhood bookshop instead of buying on Amazon, say, or eating in a local restaurant instead of McDonald’s — and using it on your travels.

When travelling, though, buying locally can be more nuanced. It could mean eating out in a local restaurant — but who owns the restaurant? Are the staff local but the profits going abroad? Does the restaurant support local producers and farmers, or are the ingredients imported? Is the attached gift shop a showcase of Indigenous craftsmanship, or are the souvenirs all made in China? 

Spirit Bear Lodge guests on a wildlife expedition.

Photograph by Cael Cook

It is, in other words, complicated. “Is it tourism that takes place in a community?” asks Dr Albert Kimbu, head of tourism and transport at the University of Surrey. “Or is it tourism that’s actively engaging and benefitting communities?” That’s the key. That’s the question we, as travellers, need to be asking.

“My take on community-based tourism, or CBT,” explains Dr Kimbu, “is that it has to be by the community, for the community.” In other words, if a hotel or lodge takes guests to visit a local school, or to see a cultural dance in a local village, which might be taking place in the community — is the community genuinely benefitting? They might be getting paid, but it could also be straight-up cultural exploitation. 

Jamie Sweeting, CEO of Planeterra, the non-profit partner of G Adventures, which specialises in community tourism, agrees: “It needs to be owned, led and run by the communities themselves.” Why? “Because,” explains Dr Kimbu, “When communities become aware that what they have is a product that can be sold, then they have a stake in protecting it.”

Take the Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge in Rwanda. The saleable product here is the mountain gorilla that inhabits Volcanoes National Park next door. Visitors will pay a high price to see them in the wild. Working with Sacola, a local non-profit, the idea of a lodge that’s 100%-owned and -run by the community was born, with all profits going back into social and economic projects, as well as conservation within the park. It’s worked a treat. Since opening in 2006, US$4m (£3m) has gone into community and conservation projects, while the gorilla population in the park now includes 10 different gorilla groups. So, the community recognised the financial benefits of their neighbouring gorillas and now benefit by protecting their environment.

But CBT at its best goes way beyond employing locally. It means the community gets to decide how to protect the culture and environment on which it depends. So, the community benefits, the environment and local culture is safeguarded, and the resulting economic benefits stay within the community. Win-win-win. 

There are ripple effects, too. Spier, a wine estate in South Africa’s Stellenbosch region, has a Growing for Good programme, which includes mentoring and assisting local entrepreneurs to create businesses that can then be used by Spier. This has worked with a local laundry service, for example, as well as a taxi service used by its guests. And Fogo Island Inn in Newfoundland, Canada is all about the ripple effects, having been created entirely for the benefit of the local community. This 29-room luxury inn was built by local philanthropist Zita Cobb through her Shorefast Foundation, and 100% of operating surpluses are reinvested in the community — a community that was in dire straits just a decade ago, thanks to the collapse of the global cod market. 

Power in partnership

Sabyinyo, Spier and Fogo are examples of when it works. When it doesn’t work, community involvement is nothing short of exploitation. As Amanda Ho, the co-founder of Regenerative Travel, puts it: “In many cases, what we’ve seen is communities around the world angry that their health, wellbeing, and priorities are not being recognised or respected by tourism.” 

Jamie Sweeting tells me about a particular lodge in Botswana — he won’t name names — which was ‘talking the talk’ about working with the Indigenous San. “The website was shouting about empowering the local community,” he says. But when Planeterra did some digging, it found that while the San were used to put on cultural shows at the lodge, they were earning below the living wage and staying in poor accommodation with barely enough food. Planeterra worked with the local San people to promote and upskill the community-owned Dqae Qare San Lodge nearby, helping them gain direct access to the same markets the other lodge was benefitting from. 

“Community-based tourism can be especially beneficial in empowering women, who are often responsible for the homestay or dining components of a trip”

Francisca Kellett

That lack of access to market — and the lack of the knowledge, skills and infrastructure needed to run a successful travel business — is key. As Justin Francis of Responsible Travel puts it: “Being able to access the distribution chains of the tourism industry — to get guests through the doors — is difficult without the partnership of an established tour operator.” When CBT first appeared around 20-25 years ago, he says, NGOs and donors would pitch up at communities, build beautiful ecolodges, but allow the communities very little say — and then fail to provide the training, infrastructure and business know-how to lead to any kind of success. 

Having a voice, Francis says, is key where elected community representatives participate in the decision making: “The driving force behind successful CBT projects is local people setting the terms. It’s about them making informed decisions around how tourism develops.”

In the case of the Ccaccaccollo Women’s Weaving Cooperative in Peru’s Sacred Valley, it was three women that had that voice. “When they first came to us, only a handful could do traditional Inca weaving,” Sweeting says. Led by those women, Planeterra assisted with training, infrastructure and marketing, and the co-op has boomed, now owned and run by more than 65 individuals, with an attached homestay attracting overnight visitors. 

CBT can be especially beneficial in empowering women, who are often responsible for the homestay or dining components of a trip. Dreamcatchers, a tour operator in South Africa, recognised this over 30 years ago, and helped launch a range of CBT enterprises including ‘Kammama’, a selection of nationwide, women-run homestays and experiences, from cooking courses in Soweto to an overnight stay with a family in the Cape Winelands.

In the case of Ccaccaccollo, the ripple effect has been a huge uptick in education in the community: all the women involved are now fully literate in Spanish, the first generation to achieve this locally, and most have children in tertiary education — another first. “And there has been an uplift in the pride in their culture. They’re embracing it. They can see that people from dozens of countries travel to visit them because they have something special to offer,” says Sweeting.

That special offering is what’s in it for us. “For travellers, CBT offers a genuinely authentic experience and insight into local life,” says Zina Bencheikh, at Intrepid Travel. “Travellers are welcomed into a community and have the chance to immerse themselves.” Intrepid now aims to bring a degree of CBT into many of its sustainable, small-group adventure tours. “Our clients often talk about our CBT experiences as one of the unexpected highlights of their trip,” says Bencheikh.

So how do we spot the good guys? How do we know whether a lodge or restaurant or experience that claims to benefit a community genuinely is?  “Ask questions,” says Dr Kimbu. “Have a discussion with those organising your trip.” Bencheikh agrees. “Do your research. Before you visit, ask questions about how the project is run and where the money goes from your visit.” Travelling with a trusted tour operator is also sensible, as is looking out for any certification programmes such as B Corp. 

Covid-19, of course, has had a dreadful impact on CBT. Planeterra recently launched the Global Community Tourism Network, providing online training, promotion and marketing, to help organisations prepare for when tourists come back. “Many communities don’t have internet or phone access,” explains Sweeting. “So, we also have 16 strategic partnerships, mostly local non-profits with their own network. Our reach is now more than 800 community tourism enterprises in 75 countries.” 

On the flipside, Covid-19 has also changed how we want to travel. “There’s been a definite shift, with more travellers wanting to find purpose in their trips,” says Sweeting. “We need to take advantage of that. When you’re able to experience something owned and run by a community, it’s much more rewarding, and a more equitable experience for the host and the guest.” As Dr Kimbu puts it, “CBT has a sense of fairness and justice.” 

It’s that sense of fairness and justice that’s been behind the success of Spirit Bear Lodge for more than 20 years and one that the community hopes will last for generations. “I do hope that my children and future children continue with Spirit Bear Lodge,” Robinson tells me. “Seeing the growth in this company has been amazing. It’s a great way to learn and grow and thrive in our homelands.” You can’t say fairer than that.  

Published in the May 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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