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Opinion | Responsible Tourism | Central America


The economic viability of community-based tourism

Ernest CaƱada | Alba Sud

In the debate framework on the economic viability of community based-tourism some critical issues are identified, such as diversification versus specialisation, the limits of the markets, the will or its lack of affirming autonomy, or the ongoing dispossession processes. 

Although Community Tourism (CT) has contributed significantly to rural development where it has successfully taken hold, it is also true that not all initiatives have managed to survive. Becoming economically viable is the great challenge facing CT at this time. Community initiatives need to be capable of offering distinctive, high-quality attractions and amenities and have the management and marketing capacity to enable them to operate independently from international cooperation assistance. As obvious as it may seem, it is necessary to remember that these qualities provide the key to CT being a potential factor in rural development. To this end, many factors need to be worked on: having adequate facilities and access routes, developing high-quality activities and services, distinctive positioning, optimizing administrative skills, obtaining funding, improving publicity and marketing capabilities, etc.

Diversification vs. Specialization

Nevertheless, addressing the challenge of economic viability is not merely a technical affair, but rather one of political orientation around what type of rural development those involved want. Being economically viable does not necessarily mean specializing or converting community initiatives into businesses exclusively devoted to tourism activities. Orientations that push for specializing in tourism and attaining comparative advantages in the delivery of these services do not take into account the basic principles of the peasant economy, in which CT is taking part. In the current rural context in Latin America, specializing in tourism implies vulnerability and dependence on an external line of business that has its own dynamics that community organizations cannot control. Instead, tourism should form part of a strategy to diversify production, seeking to complement rather than supplant traditional agrarian activities.

For peasant families, the essential thing is to guarantee that they have food to eat, so moving into other lines of business, such as tourism, necessarily remain secondary to what is fundamental: producing food. Throughout this discussion, the watchword is diversification, not specialization. Tourism services can be a means for expanding production activities, in the same way that other activities can— if the community so desires, if it has the conditions, if it successfully develops attractive activities and services, if it is able to market them. Tourism can be a way to diversify a community’s economic activities, but it is not the only way, or necessarily the most important one, and even less so is it an option for everyone. That is why it is especially important that community development plans not centre on a single line of business, whether that be tourism or any other, but rather on diverse and complementary actions that can benefit the entire population and that, in turn, attempt to avoid the risks of creating new distinctions among people and worsening inequalities.

Taking into Account the Limits of the Market

At the same time, we must be aware of the true extent of the tourism market and avoid false expectations. We should recognize that not all rural communities can expect to have the same success with tourism. It is simply not possible for the demand to expand indefinitely. Starting up community tourism initiatives is complicated and requires willingness, hard work and organization, but it also requires certain conditions (tourist attractions, accessibility, distinctiveness, etc.)

One of the traits that have characterized CT is its excessive dependence on the outside. There are many reasons why this needs to be reduced. The dominant tourism model, propped up by the relatively cheap cost of airline tickets, is starting to experience serious difficulties because of the underlying trends toward a progressive increase in oil prices and reduction in the diversity of commercial destinations. In addition, its ecological impact makes the model totally unsustainable. The orientation toward the international CT market makes the people involved more vulnerable to external factors that the communities cannot influence. From our perspective, the economic viability of CT depends more on the strengthening of local tourism markets, with short-distance tours that are nationally or regionally based, and avoiding dependence on the international market. This does not mean denying the possibility of finding opportunities in the international arena, but the development of CT cannot sustain itself on such a fragile foundation.

CT can be part of a tourism development strategy that is an alternative to the dominant model, which is based on ties between international hotel chains and tourism and residential projects with primarily foreign investment. But it can only be one part of the strategy. CT on its own cannot be the alternative. It needs to build an alliance with the small- and medium-size local and national tourism industry. Only ties and connections with these two groups (community groups and local small- and medium-size business owners) can enable the development of home-grown tourism. Implementing initiatives with these characteristics is not an easy task, which is why the work done by local management is so important.

A Bid for Economic Autonomy

Lately we have been hearing insistent voices that defend the need for rural populations to plug into conventional tourism enterprises in one way or another. This also includes CT. Although it is logical for a specific community initiative to try to expand its marketing opportunities with the alternatives it has closer at hand, this type of orientation presents problems when it is presented as a general proposal for rural development.

The objective is to reduce poverty by increasing net income through tourism. However, an increase in income that is not accompanied by a lessening in inequality is unlikely to achieve real changes in the dynamics of poverty. The problem, furthermore, is that the proposals for linking CT to conventional tourism legitimate de facto tourism and residential megaprojects. In our view, seeking alliances that subordinate CT to megaprojects is a misguided strategy because it does not take into account the political dimension of economic relations. Such a strategy implies, in fact, conferring legitimacy on those who are destroying the chances of survival of peasants and indigenous peoples. It also attempts, in the end, to overcome community resistance to the appropriation of their resources (land, water, forests) and territories, using the strategy that the geographer David Harvey described as ‘accumulation by dispossession’.

Confronting dispossession

The debate over the economic viability of CT needs to be approached from a broader perspective than it has been up until now. The principal topic under discussion should be centred on how the community-based economy, whether or not linked to tourism, is functioning and contributing to improving the living conditions of the local inhabitants. Strengthening communities, whether through diversified and complementary farming, livestock, fishing, agroindustry, apiculture or tourism, where the leadership and control over essential resources remains in the hands of the people who live there and are organized collectively, is the key that can enable communities to continue living in their traditional territories.

The development of tourism is not neutral; it brings with it competition and conflicts over territory, natural resources and the public purse. The logic of corporate tourism investors is to ‘create’ spaces that enable expanding the accumulation of capital, and to this end, they need to transform and gentrify determined territories until they run out, to then migrate and conquer new areas in the ‘pleasure periphery’, increasingly distant from the originating centres.

The crucial point under discussion is how these distinct manifestations of grassroots economics act like a dike to hold back multiple types of usurpation of territories and natural resources by corporate investors, whether through agro-fuels, industrial agriculture, mining, construction of mega-infrastructure or through tourism operations. At the same time, we need to ask if local groups of people in collective organizations are capable of starting up and sustaining rural development initiatives that are alternatives to the dominant ones, with other approaches and values. The goal is none other than being able to keep rural communities alive. It is in this context that CT takes on new strategic significance, as part of a much broader process of social empowerment.


Originally published in Spanish in El Blog de la Red Prensa Rural, 17 August 2009.

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