For life-changing trips that boost local economies, try community-based tourism.
Carol Greenhouse | April 2009 issue
At the end of a business trip to Central Asia last summer, Leo Caprez decided to see Kyrgyzstan. So he signed on for a five-day tour through the Kyrgyz Community-Based Tourism Association. A week later, after riding a horse over 3,000-meter-high mountains, he was downing plov (fried meat, onions and carrots mixed with rice) by candlelight with his girlfriend in a yurt beside a high-alpine lake. The trip left Caprez awestruck. “We rode through 15 valleys with no visitors in them,” says the 23-year-old law and economics student. “I don’t think it would be a problem to travel for a month without seeing anyone. I’d never experienced anything like that.”
Community-based tourism (CBT) specializes in exactly that: providing tourists with things they’ve never experienced before. Taking root in dozens of less-developed countries from Thailand to Tajikistan, CBT enables travelers to stay in local homes, attended by hosts who offer everything from home-cooked meals to guide services to instruction in herb-collecting for ceremonial purposes. CBT typically not only costs far less than standard resort vacations and eases human impact on environments and cultures, but generates revenue that goes directly to the hosts and their communities. Considering that tourism is a multitrillion-dollar industry in which as little as 10 percent of the take stays where travelers do, CBT stands to make a dramatic difference. What’s more, say advocates, it has a lot more to offer than a lounge chair by the pool. “If you’re looking for bang for the buck in terms of life-changing experiences,” says Justin Francis, founder of the U.K.-based sustainable tour-packaging firm Responsible Travel, “you couldn’t get any better than community-based tourism.”
Francis, the former Body Shop marketing director, started Responsible Travel in 2001. Alongside the Washington, D.C.-based environmental advocacy organization Conservation International (CI), his firm has become a key advocate of CBT. But it isn’t for everyone, Francis stresses. “If you want to take a walk with a tribal elder to see how they use forest medicines for health care [or] if you want to go trekking with a Maasai warrior on his land instead of being cramped in with a lot of other tourists on a minibus, this is for you.”
I couldn’t agree more. Over the past 10 years, I’ve spent the weekend with a family in Soweto, South Africa, sleeping in the single bed usually filled by 10-year-old twin boys and bathing in an aluminum tub; hunted with a Bushman chief in Namibia; ridden camels with Moroccan desert nomads; chewed betel nut, a mild stimulant, with female elders in Thailand; and been drenched in water and frosted with powder by laughing villagers following the Thai Songkran (“New Year”) custom. After that, ordinary vacations with their sightseeing excursions and golf packages feel as empty as snapping photos of Niagara Falls from a tour bus. “Of all the trends in tourism, this is the biggest undiscovered thing of all,” says Francis. “Better yet, you don’t need high numbers to change lives in these destinations. If you live off 50 cents a day, 30 or 40 visitors a month paying $50 a day is an enormous sum.”
Community-based tourism is still more or less under the radar, according to Francis, because it “isn’t something that can be packaged and sold to Expedia. The development agencies that have supported it aren’t in the marketing business. And the product and the consumer are a long way from one another. I think we’re at a crossroads. Either people will lose interest in this as a viable way to reduce poverty or it’s going to be huge—and the key determinant is marketing.”
Tricia Barnett, director of TourismConcern in London, agrees. That’s why the advocacy group just co-published a second edition of its CBT guidebook, The Ethical Travel Guide, which is packed with hundreds of off-the-beaten-track, community-based adventures.
And the adventures are catching on. In 2008, for example, Kyrgyzstan hosted 9,200 CBT travelers, bringing in nearly $250,000, up from 718 visitors who brought $10,000 into the economy in 2000. The sum, less than the average home price in the U.S., exceeds the country’s total tourism budget and radically raises the quality of life for whole villages. For the mainstream tourism industry, numbers like these are hardly worth the trouble of tallying. But ordinary tourism income accrues largely to big companies, while the profit from CBT goes right into the hands of poor families. Plus, community-based trips are typically less expensive than conventional vacations, offering credit-crunched consumers a cost-effective alternative.
The Gutierrez family of La Garnacha, Nicaragua, is a typical beneficiary of CBT. Nicaragua is the second poorest nation in Latin America, with a per capita income of just $9 a day. Until CBT was introduced in 2005, single mother Maria Elsa Gutierrez, 35, went two years without a steady income. Meanwhile, her daughter Marlin, now 14, walked five hours to and from school in a neighboring village, sometimes hungry. These days, the community has a school of its own built with CBT funds, and Gutierrez works full-time cleaning and maintaining the four wooden cabins rented to guests who come to explore the surrounding Tisey-Estanzuela Nature Reserve, pick up some of the queso suizo (swiss goat cheese) made in the local factory, or just take a break from the capital city of Managua.
Gutierrez’s story is nothing out of the ordinary in La Garnacha. Of the 26 families in the village, 25 have at least one member working in tourism, giving these families more security than they’ve ever known. In high season—particularly December, when tourist numbers top 100—the money left after payroll has been met is plowed back into the community, which grants microloans or invests it for the benefit of all. (Last year, the community was able to buy 15 cows.) Through a translator, La Garnacha’s project coordinator Yadira Moreno says, “We are 70 percent better off since the tourists have been coming.”
Stories like that of the Gutierrez family are perhaps the best marketing CBT advocates could ever hope to have. “If everyone with a desire to change the world tried CBT,” says Responsible Travel’s Francis, “they would discover experiences that would change their lives and transform communities worldwide.”