//The rise of community tourism

The rise of community tourism

Sustainable travel is taking off among holidaymakers, promising an authentic experience that supports host communities, finds Daniel Allen

Community-based tourism (or CBT) is part of responsible tourism, providing holidays that benefit both the traveller and the destination.

“CBT is tourism owned or managed by the local community, with the aim that the community directly benefits from that tourism,” explains Clare Jenkinson, ABTA’s senior destinations and sustainability manager. “An example could include a homestay run by the community in a rural location that normally wouldn’t attract many tourists.”

It is all about treading lightly on homes and cultures, positive interactions between guests and their host countries, and a growing awareness of our impact on the well-being of the places where we take holidays. As an increasingly popular alternative to traditional mass market offerings, CBT essentially seeks to minimise the negative effects of tourism while empowering local people at a grassroots level.

The philosophy behind CBT is applied by operators on a range of scales. Individual projects may help a village of 50 people or fewer, while in 2017 TUI sold more than one million TUI Collection excursions that all seek to benefit local communities.

According to the 2018 ABTA Travel Trends Report, value for money and increased awareness of responsible tourism are proving influential in people’s decision-making over holiday destinations this year. The report found that seven out of 10 people believe travel companies should ensure their holidays help local people and economies.

“The demand for authentic, local experiences is growing,” says Jenkinson. “The industry is responding to that by learning from CBT and developing new tourism products in partnership with local people.”

“It is important to remember that there are always increased risks of exploitation when you work with poorer or marginalised communities,” says Jenkinson. “Guidance such as ABTA’s international volunteering guidelines (launched in 2016) sets out how companies can ensure they are not contributing to such exploitation.”

ABTA’s own sustainability programme, Better Places, supports members in adopting the best approach toward sustainability, offering comprehensive guidance and support for businesses looking to develop tourism that creates better places to live and to visit. It provides a step-by-step process, with tools and guidance covering the business case, action planning, working with supply chains, engaging customers and measuring impact.

ABTA’s sustainability team can offer further advice and support.

Cases in point

While the growing number of CBT offerings are more typically based in less-developed countries, the concept of local communities taking a leading role in developing their own tourism products is now taking hold across the globe. Here are a few examples.

Costa Rica

Costa Rica has been famous for its nature-based tourism since the early 1990s. Most Costa Ricans share the vision of promoting the country as a “green” destination, with one quarter of all Costa Rican territory protected through national parks and reserves.

Costa Rica’s pioneering excellence in environmental conservation has often come at a cost to the preservation of its local cultures, however. Around 60,000 indigenous Costa Ricans still live in largely traditional communities in isolated rural areas. They depend on forests and rivers in their daily lives, gathering fruit, fishing and using forest materials for traditional medicines and home construction.

There are now a number of organisations that promote rural and community tourism in Costa Rica, including ACTUAR (Costa Rica Association of Community-based Rural Tourism) and ATEC (Talamanca Association of Ecotourism and Conservation). Rickshaw Travel offers a number of community-based experiences in Costa Rica, including stays with the Bribri tribe near the Panamanian border and in the Juanilama community in the north of Costa Rica, as well as pineapple farm tours.


The small East African country of Rwanda has put its turbulent history firmly in the past and is becoming an increasingly popular tourism destination once again. It boasts a rich natural and cultural heritage, with attractions including gorilla and chimpanzee trekking and safari experiences in the recently restocked Akagera National Park.

In 2005, the Rwandan government initiated a tourism revenue-sharing scheme, whereby five per cent of the annual income from the country’s national parks is disbursed to communities. Since then millions of pounds have been distributed to hundreds of communities across the country, funding projects involving road and bridge construction, beekeeping, water and sanitation, small- and medium-sized enterprises and handicraft production.

Worldwide Experience offers an ecotourism programme in Akagera National Park that supports local communities and environmental conservation, while offering participants the chance to be immersed in the area’s fascinating local culture.

The only wilderness refuge left in Rwanda for savannah-adapted species, Akagera is a conservation success story, with black rhinos and lions having been recently reintroduced from South Africa to make it the country’s only “Big Five” park. Volunteers in the programme engage with local communities on the outskirts of the park, with projects including beekeeping, aquaculture, English teaching and environmental education.


With its historic kasbahs and medinas, rich culinary and handicraft traditions, and stunning wild nature and landscapes, Morocco has long been a favourite destination for world travellers. The tourism sector is the country’s top earner of foreign exchange and second-largest provider of jobs.

Community tourism is an increasingly important part of Morocco’s national tourism make-up, especially with regard to socio-economic development outside of urban areas. Visiting rural tourism destinations diversifies and spurs growth in local economies and creates jobs.

Education for All Morocco Limited (EfAM) is a charity established in 2006 by Discover Ltd and partners in Marrakesh. EfAM was set up to build boarding houses near to secondary schools in Morocco, providing accommodation and care to girls from remote mountain communities in the High Atlas Mountains, enabling them to further their education through the Moroccan state system.
While primary education in Morocco is readily available to children aged between seven and 14 years old, it is unusual for girls in the High Atlas Mountains to continue their education beyond primary level because of the distances they need to travel. Many families do not have the financial resources to support their daughters through secondary education.

Education for All and Discover Ltd organise community work and service projects through which international visitors can make an essential contribution to the provision of secondary education for Moroccan girls.


Renowned for its beaches, volcanoes, Komodo dragons and orangutans, the hugely diverse Indonesian archipelago – the fourth most populous country in the world – is home to hundreds of ethnic groups speaking myriad languages. Indonesia’s communities typically welcome visitors with open arms, with villages offering visitors the perfect exposure to authentic Indonesian life and culture.

Indonesia’s booming tourism industry provides jobs and a reliable income for many Indonesian people. However, the country’s growing number of international and domestic tourists has not been completely beneficial, with many popular destinations suffering from negative environmental and socio-cultural impacts as a result of mass tourism. This has recently led to a rise in small-scale community tourism, both as a result of government initiatives and the efforts of tour operators.

On the Indonesian island of Java, for example, the Planeterra Foundation – a non-profit organisation that supports numerous projects around the world in areas of social enterprise, healthcare, conservation and emergency response – is working with partner G Adventures to build capacity and provide catalyst grants for infrastructure development for the Tengger people in Ngadas Village. By working with the Tengger tribe, they are creating a homestay and community tour programme owned and managed by the Tengger people for G Adventures travellers.


Mexico is often portrayed as a beach holiday destination, with a focus on soaking up the sun, eating tacos and drinking tequila. Today, with the rise of Mexican CBT, it is possible to experience a more authentic, culturally immersive and rewarding stay by spending time with local people who are now taking an increasingly active role in tourism.

Thomas Cook now offers 61 “Local Label” excursions in 30 destinations. An example of this is their “100 per cent Mayan” excursion in Mexico, which gives participants an opportunity to spend time with a real Mayan community situated near the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, a protected area rich in biodiversity.

During the excursion a local guide brings the colourful stories of the village to life, while participants can also experience some fantastic wild nature on a boat trip through the reserve and taste locally grown food. Funds from the excursion contribute to the purchase of food for the villagers and provide access to an organic gardener who teaches them how best to cultivate the land to make the most from the natural produce grown there. Funds are also being put towards developing more robust housing capable of withstanding hurricanes.


As it steadily opens up to the outside world, Myanmar is one of Asia’s most intriguing cultural tourism destinations. From north to south, east to west, the country offers a rich tapestry of cultures, environments and ways of life ripe for exploration. Developing rapidly in Myanmar, community tourism can foster skills and confidence and create jobs and income for local people, thereby contributing to the alleviation of poverty and preservation of natural and cultural heritage.

Between 2014 and 2017 the number of community tourism destinations grew from six pilot projects to more than 30 destinations. Behind successful initiatives is a step-by-step process to build the capacity and confidence of rural villagers, as they work with responsible public and private-sector partners to develop memorable introductions to Burmese community life for visitors.

Developed in partnership with international NGO ActionAid, Intrepid Travel is running a community-based tourism project in the township of Myaing, in one of the poorest and least developed regions of Myanmar. Benefitting more than 1,150 community members living in a cluster of four villages less than two hours’ drive north of the ancient city of Bagan, visitor numbers are highly restricted in order to limit the impact on the community (currently it is only possible to visit as part of Intrepid’s Best of Myanmar tour).

Intrepid has also formed a collaborative partnership with Australian Volunteers International and the Australian government to support 10 Burmese small businesses as they develop tourism products to take to market. Successful products include bags and jewellery made from recycled materials, a demonstration of traditional tea-making and cooking classes run by housewives.

For more destination features, ABTAmag.com/category/features