Communities are key to sustainable tourism development

Speaking at the WTTC Global Summit recently in Buenos Aires, Bulgaria’s Minister of Tourism, H.E. Nikolina Angelkova, explained how by law tourism tax revenues in the country have to be used in local communities. Similarly H.E. Ana Mendes Godinho, Secretary of State for Tourism for Portugal explained how at least 90% of local people have to approve for major tourism developments to go ahead.

Clearly they see the importance of local communities in the Travel & Tourism eco-system.

So why are local communities so crucial?

There has been a recent surge in demand for trips that offer self discovery. This search for a deeper connection when it comes to travel is not just associated with young people. Active retirees are also seeking out experiential travel opportunities, as they stay fitter into older age. As the same destinations are found on many peoples’ bucket lists, finding points of differentiation isn’t easy. Meeting local people and seeing the world through their eyes is one way to offer something unique. It’s thus much in demand. The way that locals can connect with a visitor and enhance their trip is worth far more than luxury toiletries or six types of gin.

Whilst many local people genuinely love showing visitors their neighbourhoods, do it too much and anyone will become jaded. That crucial sense of authenticity can get lost. Sustainable travel is all about managing resources, be that water or waste or… people. Unlike some things which can be increased with investment in infrastructure or new technologies, people are a fragile resource and need to be treated with care. Consequently it’s local people who feel the impacts of too many tourists first. Given the right channels, they can raise warning flags before the problem becomes entrenched. Often they are the ones best placed to come up with practical solutions.

Whilst tourists travel to a place, spend time there and leave, locals are there every day. They have a far greater investment in the environment. Particularly as they start to see the income that tourism can generate for their community, they see the importance of protecting the fragile eco-systems and cultural treasures that tourists are coming to experience. They campaign against over development and for better infrastructure for waste, traffic and water management. This is particularly important in less developed countries where environmental regulations can be lax. The idea is at its most pertinent for protecting endangered wildlife. In many parts of the world, local communities play a vital role in reporting poaching activity, helping to protect rare species which they know are worth far more to the community alive than dead.

So, how do we nurture and support local communities?

Finding a balance is challenging, but there are ways that authorities can help keep the equilibrium ensuring meaningful livelihoods for locals and authentic experiences for visitors.

If local people don’t feel the benefits of tourism directly they can come to resent the presence of visitors. As Ministers from Portugal, Bulgaria and others explained at the Summit, taxing tourists and ploughing that income into development that benefits locals is key. Improved roads, internet access, sanitation and waste management are just a few examples. In less developed countries this kind of investment can be used to lift people out of poverty. Income generated from National Parks in Rwanda is used to build schools and provide healthcare centres.

Allowing local people to have a say in how tourism projects are developed and managed is crucial too. It’s important that formal structures are put in place so that community members can be confident that their concerns and ideas will be listened to and acted upon. In Iceland where after a decade of swift growth in visitors, tourism management was becoming a concern working groups were created to develop a new plan. Private sector stakeholders like lodging and tour operators, local community groups, events organisers and urban planners were all included.

It’s not enough to provide a forum for local people though. At a higher level, there needs to be legal protection that ensures the environment that the community depends upon for developing a sustainable tourism product is protected. This not only protects the special places, cultures and creatures that people are coming to experience, it also makes the priorities of the authorities completely clear. This gives communities confidence for longer term planning. Botswana is a great example. All land given over to tourism is protected by law and managed by the Botswana Tourism Authority. Tourism here is managed by the country for its people.

In many parts of the developed world where employment in traditional industries has died out due to automation and changes in consumer buying habits, tourism offers new livelihoods. Take a small community like The Burren in County Clare, Ireland. Here the local community which formerly relied on farming struggled with high levels of unemployment. Community tourism has provided a new foundation for local people to set up successful businesses. Cafes, cycle tour operators, restaurants and food producers all work together. But this didn’t happen in isolation. It was part of an EU-funded programme which provided training, marketing, consultation and research.

Read more: Community involvement is one of a range of issues relating to sustainable tourism growth. Find out now…

Our mission is to maximise the inclusive and sustainable growth potential of the Travel & Tourism sector. Join the conversation #WTTC