“Do good while travelling!” You don’t just want to travel anymore. You want to see the real world! The time of relaxing on the beach and after a hot and sandy day returning to your hotel has long gone. Travellers want more today, judged by how tour operators market their packages and how travel blogs write about travel (see the Further Reading section for some examples). Truly experience a new place, learn a new language, meet a local, “become a better you”, these are all things that the new tourist wants. And it is on offer. What better way than stepping aboard the train of Indigenous tourism, community-based tourism or pro-poor tourism, because that is where – theoretically at least, you can give back to the community you have come to visit. In such tourism, there is the potential for ensuring community development and nature conservation. The idea is that you come and enjoy yourself and your Dollars/Euros do the rest: the community grows out of poverty, sustains itself and creates higher living standards for the residents. Sounds like a great idea!

Great ideas are only seldom new ideas. It was back in the 1970s that the term ‘ecotourism’ was invented. While the term is commonly misunderstood as just nature tourism, the true ecotourist contributes and gives back and cares for the destination, culturally, environmentally and economically (also see www.ecotourism.org, the International Ecotourism Society). The idea was so great, that from the 1990s onwards development and nature conservation organisations started to see tourism as a development tool. SNV, the Netherlands Development Organisation, World Wildlife Fund, Wildlife Conservation Society, and many others, rolled out projects where communities were being transformed into commercial destinations receiving tourists in the name of conservation. These tourists came from mostly Western and developed-world countries. And since tourism is almost always an economic activity and is carried out by globally operating market players, more often than not, these projects were set up as companies.

Tourism as a development tool – which interestingly means that commercial market forces start shaping the development scene, came a long way throughout the 1990s and the early 2000s. But more recently, most of these organisations pulled back their tourism programs, or strongly reduced them (also see: The rise and fall of tourism for poverty reduction, by John Hummel).

Along the way, many experiences have been collected. Many good, many bad. Community-based tourism has both the potential to bring huge (economic) benefit as well as to completely destroy vulnerable communities from the inside (socioculturally) and from the outside (environmentally).

Community-based tourism has great potential

The popular idea of community tourism is that it is the community who owns and operates the tourist activity. Instead of some powerful company, it is the community who decides what happens in their territory and, more importantly, the benefits flow directly into the community. The underlying thought is that the community knows what is best for them and also deserves the majority of the income generated by receiving tourists, not intermediaries.

Agua Blanca in Ecuador is maybe one of the best examples of successful community-based tourism. This town in the south of Ecuador seems to do it all right. In the 1970s, well preserved archaeological remains of pre-hispanic origin were found in the area. With the help of several national and foreign Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO’s) over the years the town first built a village museum where these pieces were on display. This was so successful that slowly the entire village turned into an open air museum of sorts. Gradually the whole town got more attention from tourism due to (among other things) its proximity to Puerto Lopez, a nearby established tourist beach destination. Thanks to strong internal management (strengthened by  external support from the NGO’s) the town was able to organize itself and lay down a complete tourism plan in which benefits were distributed equally and honestly among the village families. After a long process, almost all of the families in Agua Blanca are benefiting from tourism today. The (very professional) website of the town (see: www.comunidadaguablanca.com) states that the town employs 40 guides offering five different tours and 20 cabins. The tour guides take incoming tourists on a rotating basis, as to guarantee equal benefits. Furthermore, the town offers a community restaurant, a natural mud pool with supposed health benefits, massages and a shop selling handicrafts and local products.

Not all community families work directly with tourists. Endere and Zulaica (2015) have recorded that from 72 families (with a total of 300 persons) 80% are involved with tourism and the remaining 20% earns a living from poultry farming, beekeeping and agriculture. These authors have measured the socio-cultural sustainability of the community based on six major criteria consisting of 25 indicators (score low – medium – high) and conclude that 64% of indicators receive a High and 32% Medium scores, which is rather impressive. Only the indicator on linkage with regional/national institutions scores low.

Other impressive examples are from Kenya, although their approaches are very different. In Kenya the so-called “Conservation Tourism Enterprise” has been introduced as safari tourism lodges who besides wildlife watching invest in conservation of nature with the help of local rural savannah communities.

Pellis et al (2014) report on four of these Conservation Tourism Enterprises that are supported by national conservation NGO’s (namely African Conservation Centre, Northern Rangelands Trust, Laikipia Wildlife Forum and African Wildlife Foundation – AWF), who in turn were supported for a large part by the Netherlands Embassy in Nairobi.

One of them, Satao Elerai camp, a luxurious, high end safari lodge not far from Amboseli national park and with direct views of Mount Kilimanjaro, is legally owned by the eight extended families that form the community. AWF started negotiations with the community and brought in an experienced and international safari operator (Southern Cross Safaris) to run the camp. The collective 6,000 hectares of community owned land was divided into three relatively equal parts: one conservation and tourism zone; one settlement, cultivation and agricultural zone; and one grazing zone for the families’ cattle. The arrangement is governed by a trust consisting of family members, members of the tour operator, and one AWF representative. There is policy dictating that each family must be represented in the trust and the underlying management committee and sub committees (where decisions are made regarding water, education, settlement, cultural village and conservation).

In terms of benefits, there are four agreements. First, all families receive land lease fees, of which 30% is reserved for school bursaries. Second, for each visitor the community earns $20 per night which is used for wages for wildlife scouts, teachers, water pumps, maintenance of the water systems, medical expenses, and others. Third, a bed night fee of $14 per visitor per night is charged of which $3 go to school bursaries and $11 to the eight families’ private accounts. Finally, at the cultural village $20 per visitor is collected and flows directly to the 48 women of the village, after the deduction of $3 for school bursaries. At the time of study, the total tourism income was around $100,000 per year (Pellis et al, 2014).

The school that the Satao Elerai project supports. Kenya.

All in all, besides the extended families owning the land, the larger community benefits in terms of health care facilities, maintenance of water and road infrastructure, school bursaries and teachers and employment, both at the camp and in the cultural village. Naturally, with the African Wildlife Foundation being the supporting NGO, wildlife conservation has been an integral part of the master plan from the beginning. The conservation funds accruing from the Satao Elerai camp are directly used for protecting the larger Elerai Community Conservancy. In practice this means keeping this long stretch of land open as a corridor so wildlife can freely migrate between the Amboseli, Mt. Kilimanjaro and Chyulu national parks.  

As a matter of fact, safari tourism in Africa is known for its very progressive character. Many of the high-end tourism lodges receiving the wealthier type of (Western) tourist have very social connections with local communities, similar to the one above described. These entrepreneurs really understand that their business depends on safe and healthy wildlife and nature and that this is only possible with the support of the local community living in the midst of it. Political support is out of the question since African governments are often weak, little competent and corrupt and therefore entrepreneurs have taken matters into their own hands. In many cases this has led to great and inclusive initiatives that naturally follow the core values of sustainability. This makes African safari tourism one of the more sustainable types of tourism there is (see also Overbooked, The exploding business of travel and tourism, by Elizabeth Becker). The Further Reading section below lists some of Kenya’s greatest Conservation Tourism Enterprises, all set up around the core principles of CBT.

But below the surface…

Researching CBT on Ometepe Island, Nicaragua

Like the above examples, there are countless stories to tell of beautiful and successful community-based tourism projects. Even though Agua Blanca in Ecuador and Satao Elerai in Kenya are largely successful, below the surface there are always flaws. Where there is money to be distributed, conflict is near. The beneficiary families in Satao Elerai, for example, are constantly plagued by fights. As in nearly all community-based tourism cases, there is a small group of elites who have been able to occupy powerful positions from which they influence the money flow, consequently leading to a private gain and kin preference by a small group of people (Pellis et al, 2014).

Another often heard critique is that arrangements like these need constant external supervision. Be it an NGO or a governmental body, experience shows that without it, the community is unable to handle the new cash flow transparently. The public-private partnership (PPP) where an external company is brought in often overcomes that problem, but then the conflict just moves to the corporate level where the company and the community fail to agree on benefits.

A comparative study conducted in 2008 came to the conclusion that enthusiasm for CBT is often misplaced, because in reality CBT rarely relieves the poverty and vulnerability of communities. Their main critique was that most CBT projects never reach financial maturity because average occupancy rates hardly ever reach more than 5%, which is much too low to reach stability. In practice this often means collapse after public funding dries up. The two main causes for the failure of CBT projects are poor market access and poor management (Mitchell and Muckosy, 2008). These authors question the return of investment of installing the very complex foundations of CBT and hypothesize that mainstream package tourism may actually have a much greater economical impact.

More recent documentation reports similar messages. Community elites and external stakeholders play the game and it is questionable if the poor actually benefit from it (Giampiccoli and Saayman, 2018). There is a mismatch between what CBT is supposed to entail and what happens in reality. CBT, per definition, should be characterized by local control rather than mere involvement. Decision making, equitable sharing of collective benefits and a bottom-up organizational approach are often hard to find in many CBT projects (Giampiccoli, 2015).

Ashley & Goodwin (2007) identify three major concerns with regards to pro-poor tourism and CBT. Two of them will be discussed here. Firstly, CBT projects are often set up without having an eye (nor professional experience) for the tourism market it attempts to tap in to. As a result, many projects fail on the long term because too little tourists show up. Remote communities that are not on existing tourist routes or near tourist hubs have little chance to create a flow of tourists on their own. Additionally, communities and its members, even if trained, do not have the experience and expertise necessary to operate in the very competitive and fast-changing global industry that tourism is. And although the inclusion of an experienced tourism operator was discussed in the above African example, finding an interested partner who wants to go through all that challenge and invest equitably, is not an easy task.

Second, community-based/pro-poor tourism often remains on a micro scale, like a remote, rural village in a faraway destination. But all tourisms can include elements of pro-community. A noteworthy exception of the last mentioned concern is located in Amsterdam. While being a mass tourist destination (Amsterdam receives around 17 million visitors per year), the freshly launched Fairbnb platform offers a more (socially) responsible alternative to its infamous counterpart Airbnb. Fairbnb pays the local host a fair share while re-investing a portion of its benefits in local community projects. (See www.fairbnb.coop)

Final remarks

What is certain is that CBT proves to be a highly complex phenomenon that does not succeed magically, not even when following ‘standard guidelines’, let alone when implemented by organizations inexperienced with tourism. No two ‘communities’ are the same. There are always internal and invisible power structures present, which are rooted in a historical context which will not change with professional guidance by a company or NGO. Whenever there is money to be made, those with the best connections, networks, skills and assets claim the largest share. These are often not the people with the largest need for extra or alternative income. Within the development scene and as far as nature conservation or development agencies go, tourism has lost a lot of its potential and implementation. This is probably because of the ambiguous results it has given to date. In almost all cases, CBT requires constant monitoring and most NGO’s simply do not have resources to maintain this.

Previously cited authors Mitchell and Muckosy (2008) provide the following advices for more viable CBT: Connect to established tourist hubs or routes. Create direct and indirect jobs in the tourist industry for the locals by providing training (such as taxi, craft stalls, food stalls) instead of requiring them to enterprise (starting hotels, B&B’s or restaurants). And finally, create better access to the tourism value chain by removing barriers to market access, for example by focusing on technical or language training and infrastructure improvement.

Ultimately, CBT does have potential and there are some good examples of community-based tourism to be found that seem to do well. Although there may be new financial benefits flowing into the community, this comes at a heavy price: a lot of newly created problems. So the question remains, does the one make up for the other? Below the surface, CBT arrangements can eat up, divide and completely disrupt these vulnerable communities in their vulnerable natural settings and leave more damage than good. When is CBT a real success story? Opinions remain divided.

Author Note: Swen Waterreus, MsC, is a professor and researcher of sustainable tourism at INHolland University of Applied Sciences, Amsterdam, Holland.

Edited by Daniel Henryk Rasolt

Resources and Further Reading

Ashley, C. & Goodwin, H. (2007). Pro poor tourism: what’s gone right and what’s gone wrong? ODI Opinion, Issue 80, June 2007. Retrieved on May 2, 2019, from: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Harold_Goodwin3/publication/268040504_’Pro_poor_tourism’_What’s_gone_right_and_what’s_gone_wrong/links/5570574c08aeab777228c1c2.pdf

Becker, E. (2013). Overbooked. The exploding business of travel and tourism. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.

Endere, M.L. & Zulaica M.L. (2015). Sustentabilidad socio-cultural y Buen Vivir en sitios patrimoniales: Evaluación del caso Agua Blanca, Ecuador. In: Ambiente & Sociedade, 18, pp.259-284. Retrieved on April 3, 2019 from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/293042362_SUSTENTABILIDAD_SOCIO-CULTURAL_Y_BUEN_VIVIR_EN_SITIOS_PATRIMONIALES_EVALUACION_DEL_CASO_AGUA_BLANCA_ECUADOR

Giampiccoli, A. (2015). Community-based tourism: Origins and present trends. African Journal for Physical, Health Education, Recreation and Dance. Vol 21, p675-687. Retrieved May 2, 2019, from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/279286604_Community-based_tourism_Origins_and_present_trends

Giampiccoli, A. & Saayman, M. (2018). Community-based tourism development model and community participation. Retrieved May 2, 2019, from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/328281946_Community-based_tourism_development_model_and_community_participation

Goodwin, H. & Santilli, R. (2009). Community-based Tourism: a success? ICRT Occasional Paper 11. Retrieved from http://www.andamandiscoveries.com/press/press-harold-goodwin.pdf

Hummel, J. (2015). The rise and fall of tourism for poverty reduction within SNV Netherlands Development Organisation. Doctoral thesis. Available at:  https://www.researchgate.net/publication/283520994_The_rise_and_fall_of_tourism_for_poverty_reduction_within_SNV_Netherlands_Development_Organisation

Institute of Development Studies – IDS (2006). How Pro-poor is tourism? ID21 Insights. Volume 62. June 2006. Retrieved on May 2, 2019, from https://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20090321145027/http://www.id21.org/insights/insights62/pdf.html

Mitchell, J. & Muckosy, P. (2008). A misguided quest: Community-based tourism in Latin America. ODI Opinion, Issue 102, May 2008. Retrieved on May 2, 2019, from: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/media/57a08bd2e5274a27b2000d9d/tourism-OpPaper.pdf

Pellis, A., Anyango-van Zwieten, N., Waterreus, S., Lamers, M and Van der Duim, R. (2014). Tourism Captured by the Poor – Evaluation of Aid Investments in the Tourism Sector of Kenya’s ASALs. Wageningen University. Retrieved on April 3, 2019 from https://www.wur.nl/en/Publication-details.htm?publicationId=publication-way-343736363939.  


Sarara Camp, Kenya: www.sararacamp.com

Tassia Lodge, Kenya: www.tassiasafaris.com

Satao Elerai camp, Kenya: www.sataoelerai.com

Twala Tenebo, Kenya. This cultural village and women’s enterprise has enabled women’s independence while earning a fair living from cultural tourism: www.accafrica.org/our_work/explore_programs/enhancing_livelihoods_in_east_africa/womens-enterprise/twala-cultural-manyatta/

Agua Blanca, Ecuador: www.comunidadaguablanca.com



Do Good while travelling the world

Good Travel Blog

The International Ecotourism Society: www.ecotourism.org

Tourism in SNV: http://www.snv.org/project/high-impact-tourism-training-hitt-programme

Tourism in World Wildlife Fund: https://wwf.panda.org/knowledge_hub/where_we_work/alps/our_solutions22222/tourism/

Tourism in the Wildlife Conservation Society: https://cambodia.wcs.org/Initiatives/Communities-and-Livelihoods/Ecotourism.aspx

Fairbnb: www.fairbnb.coop