On January 27, another passionate panel gathered for our fifth Retravel Live: The Power of Community Tourism. Our founder, Bruce Poon Tip, was joined by responsible travel experts Audrey Scott (co-founder, Uncornered Market), Judy Kepher Gona (director, Sustainable Travel & Tourism Agenda), and Jamie Sweeting (president, Planeterra) for an online conversation about the positive impact of community tourism, and the power your travel plans have to help change the world.
What did we learn about this ripple of good that you can spread to your own future travels? Great question! Read on as we take you through our top takeaways — but you can also watch the full event recording below.
1. What does community tourism mean anyway?
Over the years our panelists saw ecotourism born out of the conservation movement make way for newer terms like responsible, ethical and sustainable travel. So how do our panelists define the specific movement known as community tourism?
“For me, community tourism is more about it being owned, led and run by communities. The beneficiaries of travel are the host communities that are welcoming you into the place they call home.” — Jamie
In much the same vein, Judy sees it as tourism projects done with the community, for the community. She adds that it’s taken a long time but tour operators now engage the local people as co-creators in the experience rather than just passive hosts.
“This is a model of tourism where there really is shared value and shared benefit. I think first it has to come from the community as Judy mentioned… what they want to share, the type of tourism they want to develop, the type of travellers they want and working with them to help create these experiences that really provide a connection.” — Audrey
Bruce adds that for G Adventures, community tourism is about bringing everyone into the conversation to build a community around the travel experience, not just the traveller. It’s also about bringing people to places that wouldn’t normally receive or benefit from tourism because they weren’t “on the track” - such as creating and supporting projects in areas outside of places like well-travelled Machu Picchu and Maasai Mara to make an even greater impact.
2. Communities are people not tourist attractions
As our panelists touched on, a community tourism experience should do no harm and leave everyone richer for the exchange. Considering that the basis of any social enterprise is to do good, how can travellers spot or minimize negative impacts on the local people and places they visit?
Audrey remembers finding a bright light in these pandemic times with the news that more people were visiting their local National Parks. It dampened quickly after hearing that many didn’t know to stay on trails or pack out their garbage. In much the same way, vulnerable communities are easily overwhelmed and the responsibility lies with tour operators to educate travellers in advance.
Judy suggested looking for signs that something is going wrong at the community level that mean it’s time for tour operators to re-engage, such as:
• The project is creating class division or conflict in the community
• Sub-communities like women, children or elders are not benefitting equally
• Non-local people are immigrating to the area to benefit
• The local economy is solely dependent on the tourism project
With respect to double-edged impacts like COVID-19, Jamie says we need to support communities whether they stay closed or open to travel.
“In conversations we’re having with our community partners across the world, the vast majority of them want travellers. [...] To me, ultimately that decision needs to start, first and foremost, between the travel company and the communities themselves.”
Judy agrees but adds that operators need to share all available risks and safety information beyond what each community might be learning from their local health agencies.
“We can’t assume because they are vulnerable and need income, we can send them people. We need to ask.”
3. Visiting local communities helps alleviate poverty
Beyond the cultural exchange benefits, our panelists see all kinds of ways that community tourism projects act as a powerful tool to redistribute wealth. Judy warns that a traveller’s desire to ‘do something’ can lead to chaotic charity but makes significant impacts when well organized.
“I always say that people travel to meet people, they don’t travel to see things. [...] I know when you stay in a big hotel you still meet people who live in that city and serve you. But when you go into a community and sit under the trees with them, next to their houses with them, and share their meals with them, it’s a very different real setting. [...] And during these travels you find that when people connect with people... they can see, they can almost emotionally connect with places and they are moved to do something.”
Audrey builds on this to add, “When you’ve smelled and tasted and had all the sensory experiences, you have this care about the place and take that back home with you. And even though donations to hospitals and NGOs are also incredibly important, it’s not quite the same effect as sharing that experience together. And for the local community, when travellers visit it also provides a more continual source of income, a source of exchange, a source of connection. It’s not just a one-time thing.”
Jamie stresses that this is one area that should start with travellers. They have a lot of influence and ‘power of the wallet’ to demand that travel companies integrate meaningful experiences into their itineraries.
“Ultimately the reason I’m so passionate about this having been doing it for 26 years, and probably more passionate now than I ever have been, is it’s just a better experience for the traveller. It’s absolutely a better experience for the community. And if the community is winning and the traveller is winning, then the travel companies themselves are going to win too."
4. What's the difference between compassion and charity?
Considering that Bruce thinks Judy’s answer is better than when he asked it of the Dalai Lama, we recommend listening for yourself at the 24:50 mark in the recording. In short, giving through compassion is a long term emotional engagement and more transformative for the recipient than a one-time act of charity. Need to know more? Go watch the video!
5. Having an ‘a-ha moment’ isn’t just for that 80s band
Our good mayor Kris asked each panelist to think of an experience that lit them up with a passion for community travel.
A sun, sea and sand trip to what was Yugoslavia as a 7-year-old with his grandmother. Rather than play at the beach, he spent his days hanging with the guy selling bubblegum in the back of the hotel. — Jamie
Her time as a Peace Corps volunteer in Estonia where she saw people, visitors, businesses and even local governments working together to instill pride in the community through culture sharing. — Audrey
His well-documented backpacking trip in 1990 that led him to return home and start G Adventures so that others could do the same. — Bruce
Taking complaints at a conservation organization when Maasai living on the edge of the park came in looking for financial recourse against livestock predation. Their anger at being met with a piece of legislative paper that said nothing could be done stuck with her. She continues to believe there is a better way for tourism to relate to local communities. — Judy
Want to learn more? Watch the whole thing here:
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