How can tourism stimulate rural economies?

The assessment of tourism growth is increasingly shifting from purely economic to sustainability terms, and rural communities stand to benefit
Founder at The Folk Tales

Tourism grew at 3.5% globally in 2019, outpacing the 2.5% growth rate of the global economy for the ninth consecutive year. Separately, the sector has been the source of one in four new jobs globally in the past five years, underlining its importance to the global socio-economy.

Unsurprisingly, cities that primarily contribute to these statistics have been left exhausted of their resources due to overtourism. In fact, Barcelona and Dubrovnik have seen backlash from locals who feel they have become a minority in their own cities, which have been sucked off their character. Rents for local homes and apartments have skyrocketed and become unaffordable for locals, since tourists are happy to pay higher prices for shorter stays.

This illustrates why it is not sustainable to measure tourism growth purely on economic terms.

There is a steady yet more vocal shift towards sustainable tourism to offbeat rural destinations with local communities. Increasingly, the assessment of tourism growth is shifting from a purely economic to a sustainable point of view, and non-profit organisations such as the Center for Responsible Travel have been advocating for the same.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals for sustainable tourism

Member countries of the United Nations (UN) adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015, which raise a universal call to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure peace and prosperity by 2030. Although the UN SDGs are applicable to every industry, sustainable tourism is certainly adopting it as a framework in the evolution of the way it operates.

The UN SDGs for tourism advocate that efforts for sustainability must go beyond operational efficiencies and philanthropy. Tourism businesses must ensure that profits are retained locally and re-invested in the local value chain. If this thought is kept at the forefront before designing tourism policies, we can ensure that travellers, rural communities and the environment, all benefit.

Sustainable tourism benefits for rural communities

The onus of implementing the UN SDGs in sustainable tourism lies with the entire spectrum of stakeholders. This includes property owners, tour operators, transport operators and tourism boards.

The state and national level tourism policies are increasingly driven by inputs from local communities who are custodians of their heritage. Tourism boards in New Zealand and Georgia, for example, are already shifting their focus towards sustainable tourism by measuring success not only on economic terms, but also in terms of the wellbeing of the environment and communities.

There is a steady yet more vocal shift towards sustainable tourism to offbeat rural destinations with local communities. Increasingly, the assessment of tourism growth is shifting from a purely economic to a sustainable point of view.

India is gaining pace with its Vocal for Local initiatives, a part of which advocates empowering communities by buying local produce.

Social, environmental and economic benefits

A gradually increasing number of tour and travel companies are looking to work with rural communities so that they can also benefit from tourism-related activity. Tour operators such as The Folk Tales, for example, work with rural communities in India and contribute 10% of the proceeds from tours towards tree plantation, the training and development of homestays, and sourcing souvenirs straight from the artisans, thus ensuring that money goes directly to the local value chain. In some locations, they employ women drivers and tour guides from marginalised communities after they have been trained, generating employment opportunities for them. This is in line with the UN goals of no poverty, climate action, gender equality and reduced inequalities.

Rural life in Spiti Valley, a cold desert mountain valley located high in the Himalayas in the north Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. Photo by David Shobbrook.

Elsewhere, Playa Viva, a small resort on Mexico’s Pacific coast, has developed an organic agricultural system that benefits both the property and local residents. It contributes 2% of the stay funds towards a trust that invests in community development, beaches, a bird-filled estuary, ancient ruins and poor schools in Juluchuca village. The paradigm shift in the way Playa Viva works is in line with the UN SDGs of quality education, climate action, life below water and life on land.

Another similar example is that of the Iby’Iwacu Cultural Village project in Rwanda, which invests 20% of its profits towards skills development and training of the local Nyabigoma community so community members can earn a livelihood from tourism, instead of poaching gorillas. The project employs a mix of dancers, singers, drummers, guides, herbal healers and metalworkers who are now involved in the tourism ecosystem. Parc National Des Volcans, where the village is located, is perhaps the only habitat in East Africa where one can see families of gorillas in their natural habitat.

The concept of sustainable travel originated with the idea of minimising the negative impact of tourism, which is often argued by many as ‘just slowing down eventual death’ – because sustainable tourism only reduces the harmful impacts of tourism but does not eliminate them completely. This is now evolving into regenerative travel where stakeholders are ensuring that tourists leave the destination in a better state than it previously was in.

This brings into focus the concept of the circular economy which weeds waste out of the system. It encourages reuse, repair, and up-cycling of materials, and regenerates natural systems. Tourism can be one of the sectors that leads on this front.

The future of sustainable travel

Sustainable travel is evolving into regenerative travel, and is being actively implemented on the ground with local communities. Travellers are now choosing tour operators and properties that can demonstrate sustainability. Conversations before booking a tour are now shifting towards questions around how their tour will positively impact a local community, for instance.

As a prospective traveller, there are a few factors one can consider before planning a holiday.

Check the carbon footprint of your accommodation. A luxury hotel usually leaves a much larger footprint than a small resort or a homestay made of locally available material. Additionally, a small resort or homestay will also usually be run by the village community.

Check how the accommodation sources its farm and meat produce. Is it transported over long distances or sourced from farmers from the local village?

Insist on visiting the community development projects that your tour supports, or ask questions about it when on the tour. A company that practices sustainability will be happy to answer any questions.

See the credentials of the tour operator. Check their community reach, reviews, and awards and recognition received for employing sustainable practices.

Give up single use plastic bottles for reusable water bottles that come with inbuilt filters. This is particularly relevant for the ecosystems in rural locations since they have little to no waste recycling facilities.

Refrain from visiting parks where wildlife placed under inhumane conditions for tourism. Instead, visit ethical animal conservation centres that work for welfare of animals such as elephants, bears, leopards, and reptiles.

Long road ahead, but a rewarding one

Although there is still a long way to go before sustainable travel becomes the new normal, having an informed traveller is crucial for such initiatives to thrive in the future.

Sustainable travel is evolving into regenerative travel, and is being actively implemented on the ground with local communities. Travellers are now choosing tour operators and properties that can demonstrate sustainability.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a paradigm shift in the way tourism will work. We have seen widespread news stories of pollution dropping to remarkable levels and wildlife reclaiming the land it actually belongs to.

Both travellers and local communities are realising the urgent need to shift to sustainable ways that halt the scale at which we were damaging our environment.

We can safely foresee a future with increasing demand for sustainable tours where travellers will choose to define quality differently from what has widely been the norm until now.

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Founder at The Folk Tales

Gaurav comes from a corporate background, and is now the founder of The Folk Tales, a travel organisation that promotes rural tourism in India. The Folk Tales has received awards from the World Responsible Tourism Awards for their work. He is also passionate about motor biking and art, and likes to spend his time in remote villages discovering stories about indigenous cultures.

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