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Opinion | Responsible Tourism | Central America


Contributions of community-based tourism to rural development

Ernest Cañada | Alba Sud

Characterisation of the main contributions of community-based tourism in Central America in those initiatives where it has been successfully developed. 


Community Tourism (CT) has received contradictory attention in recent years. On the one hand, more cooperation funds are being given to this sector, but on the other, a growing chorus of voices is questioning its contribution and emphasizing the contradictions of this strategy as a factor in rural development. One of its main weaknesses is, paradoxically, the lack of studies that provide evidence of the contributions that CT is making to rural development. Along these lines, we have identified seven large areas where, from our perspective, CT is already contributing in Latin America. These form the basis of what would be a worthwhile, systematic research programme.

We understand CT to be a type of tourism carried out in rural areas in which the local population, particularly indigenous peoples and peasant families, through their various collective organizational structures, exercise a prominent or leadership role in its implementation, management and oversight, as well as in the distribution of its profits. CT does not supplant traditional agrarian practices (farming, livestock, fishing, cottage industry, etc.), but rather is a way of broadening and diversifying production options for rural communities, providing a way to supplement family-based peasant economies.

These are the main contributions we have identified:

Diversification of production, creation of jobs and generation of direct economic resources. Tourism has been a means for rural communities to diversify their production activities. When tourism services start up, they create new sources of employment in rural communities in many different occupations, for both the proprietors of places of lodging and for their employees, as well as for the suppliers of goods and services. These jobs not only bring in income. Because they are spread out over the year, or because they do not necessarily coincide with the timing of income from traditional farming and livestock activities, they have also enabled the families involved in them to improve their welfare and living conditions. The income earned from tourism has contributed significantly to improving the family diet and children’s education.

Holding on to property and improving infrastructure. When tourism activities are implemented by communities or some of their members, they contribute to a revalorization of community property and resources, including lands, forests and water. Frequently, this increase in the value of these resources, primarily land, has contributed to families holding on to them in the face of pressure from the market to sell. In addition, family and community facilities created to serve tourists (rooms, dining facilities, lodgings, meeting halls) have also had other uses, thus benefiting the local people. One of the principal contributions of CT is that it has enabled the mobilization of resources that are invested in the countryside and remain in the hands of rural families and communities.

Stimulation of the local economy. Earnings from tourism activity not only improve the living conditions of the families directly involved and get reinvested in the tourism operations, they have also been used to develop and strengthen other production activities in the same cooperatives or rural communities. Different examples exist of how income generated by tourism has been used to refurbish coffee processing plants and build infrastructure necessary for processing and adding value to agricultural output. But the economic impact of tourism activity does not end there. One of the effects felt and valued the most by communities, beyond just the people directly involved in lodging and service activities, has to do with stimulation and growth in the local economy, by creating a strong demand for production and sale of food and beverages, services and transportation for hire, etc. In places where community tourism has successfully boosted the local economy, out-migration tends to drop significantly.

Democratization of access to rural space. Other tourism development models, such as residential tourism for example, lead to gentrification of the space because access to it is restricted to the use and enjoyment of more affluent segments of society. In comparison, CT makes space, infrastructure and services available to the vast majority of the population. Even though CT is still too dependent on the international market, most of the opportunities and pricing put in place facilitate this public access, and thus contribute to greater ‘environmental justice’.

Environmental protection. The vast majority of community initiatives have been implemented alongside strategies for protecting and caring for the environment proposed by the local population. The push for CT and for environmental protection activities has been interconnected.

Something shifts in gender relations. Tourism hospitality and service jobs, with the exception of tourist guides, have mainly fallen to the women in the communities. This prominent role, linked to a new activity that is also bringing in significant income, has created some changes in customary power relations between men and women. Women involved in this type of tourism activity have taken on leadership and become more engaged in their community’s public affairs. Quite a few women independently hold and control the income they earn. The women we have interviewed stress a particular issue: that even though they have seen their daily workload increase as a result of tourism, they have also been able to withdraw from the hardest outdoor tasks. Many say with pride that now they no longer have to ‘be out in the sun’ and that they can work ‘indoors’. It is also true that when men and women from other places visit rural areas, it has enabled the local people, and especially young women, to have contact with, share and learn about other ways of approaching life, motherhood, relationships, sexual preferences, housework, etc. This contact with people who, in some cases though not necessarily always, have different perspectives on gender relations may also contribute to transmitting values different from the traditional ones.

Opportunities for cultural enrichment. The implementation of tourism activities in rural areas, where the primary attraction is rural life, has been an opportunity for the revalorization and recognition of what the countryside has to offer— its material culture (architecture, occupations, cuisine, etc.) and its different cultural and artistic manifestations (music, dance, songs, etc.). Far too often, city folks turn their backs on rural culture, negating it. The tourist enhances the value of the different facets of daily community life, which provides recognition of their worth and increases self-esteem. Furthermore, contact with people from other places and countries has given people in the countryside a unique opportunity to learn, share and enrich themselves culturally. Types of tourism involving volunteers and international solidarity have been especially conducive to facilitating cultural enrichment.

The development of a CT research agenda does not end here, of course. It is also necessary to identify its weaknesses, constraints and contradictions. However, we do feel that we first need to better understand and be able to value what CT is already contributing to rural development in Latin America.


Originally published in Spanish as “Aportes del Turismo Comunitario al desarrollo rural,” in El Blog de la Red Prensa Rural, 7 August 2009.  

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