What Is Community-Based Tourism? Definition and Popular Destinations

CBT provides communities with the opportunity to play a lead role in their own tourism industries.

A backpacker walking around a local old market
Oscar Wong / Getty Images

Community-based tourism is a type of sustainable tourism where residents invite travelers to visit or stay in their communities with the intent to provide an authentic experience of the local culture and traditions. These communities are often rural, economically struggling, or living below the poverty line, and community-based tourism (CBT) gives them the opportunity to take full ownership of their area’s individualized tourist industry as entrepreneurs, managers, service providers, and employees. Most importantly, it ensures that the economic benefits go directly towards local families and stay within the community.

Community-Based Tourism Definition and Principles

In 2019, travel and tourism accounted for one in four new jobs created worldwide, while international visitor spending amounted to $1.7 trillion, or 6.8% of total imports, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council. Surveys show that travelers are becoming more interested in sustainable travel trends and supporting small businesses and unique communities. An American Express poll of travelers in Australia, Canada, India, Japan, Mexico, and the U.K. found that 68% plan to be more aware of sustainable travel companies, while 72% want to help boost tourism revenue in the local economies of the destinations they visit.

While CBT is a form of sustainable tourism, it differs slightly from ecotourism and voluntourism. Rather than focusing specifically on nature or charity, CBT is meant to benefit the community and its environments as a whole. From the traveler’s perspective, CBT offers the chance to immerse oneself in local culture and participate in a completely unique tourism experience.

Responsible Travel, a UK-based activism company that has fostered sustainable travel opportunities since 2001, says that CBT can enable tourists to discover cultures and wildlife they might not have experienced in traditional travel situations. “For many, there is nothing like bridging centuries of modern development and making a connection with people whose lives are so very different to our own,” the organization writes. “And those of us privileged enough to have visited, and listened properly, will have discovered that traditional communities often have far more to teach us about our society and our lives than we can teach them about our world.”

CBT is often developed by the destination’s local government but can also get assistance from nonprofits, other community members, private funding, or even partnerships with travel companies. Most of the time, community-based tourism projects are successful due to cooperation between the community and some kind of tourism expert.

On the road to Chitwan, Nepal
On the road to Chitwan, Nepal. Image Source / Getty Images

For example, in Madi Valley, Nepal, the Shivadwar Village community reached out to the nonprofit World Wildlife Fund (WWF Nepal) for help in 2015. The wild animals living in the famous Chitwan National Park were causing issues for the surrounding villages by wandering into their agricultural lands and damaging crops, limiting income and employment opportunities for the residents living in the popular national park’s buffer zone. WWF Nepal was able to apply for funding through their Business Partnership Platform and partnered up with travel company Intrepid to help the village develop a community-based tourism project. Today, 13 out of the 34 homes in Shivadwar Village operate as homestays, with the income going directly to the families.

Pros and Cons

When community members see that tourists are spending money to experience their traditional ways of life, it can empower them to help keep mass exploitative tourism from entering their communities. However, each situation is unique, and there is always room for advantages and disadvantages.

Pro: CBT Stimulates the Economy

A successful CBT program distributes benefits equally to all participants and also diversifies the local job market. Even community members not directly involved with homestays may also act as guides, provide meals, supply goods, or perform other tourism-related jobs. Women in the community are often responsible for the homestay components of a tourism program, so CBT can help create new spaces for women to take on leadership positions and even run their own businesses in underdeveloped communities.

Con: There’s a Potential for Benefit Leaking

Economic leakage happens when money generated by a certain industry, in this case tourism, leaves the host country and ends up elsewhere. According to a study conducted in the Muen Ngoen Kong Community of Chiang Mai, Thailand, some community members felt that “profit from tourism often does not filter down to the local economy and the costs they incurred far outweigh the benefits.” In this case, locally owned small businesses were also operating against stronger international competitors.

Pro: Environmental Conservation

Lake Issyk-Kul in Kyrgyzstan
Lake Issyk-Kul in Kyrgyzstan. Thomas Depenbusch (Depi) / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

CBT can help create alternative income for communities and less economic dependence on industries that can harm the region’s biodiversity, such as illegal logging or poaching. Members of the Chi Phat Commune in Cambodia, for example, went from relying on logging within Cambodia’s Cardamom Mountains to generating income through sustainable family-run ecotourism businesses with help from the Wildlife Alliance.

Con: It’s Not Always Successful

If the CBT project doesn’t have a clear vision or management strategy from the start, it runs the risk of failing, which could be catastrophic for an underdeveloped community that has already invested time, money, or energy into the project. Successful CBT projects bring communities together with tourism experts who know how to operate in these unique situations.

Pro: CBT Can Help Preserve Cultures

Employment opportunities in CBT don't only provide members with valuable social skills and training, but also can prevent younger generations from leaving their own communities in search of work in larger cities. At the same time, the community will recognize the commercial and social values that tourism places on their natural heritage and cultural traditions, helping foster the conservation of these resources even further.

Community-Based Tourism Destinations

Cabanas at the Chalalan Ecological Lodge in Bolivia
Cabanas at the Chalalan Ecological Lodge in Bolivia. Rodrigo Mariaca / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

Thanks to the increasing popularity of sustainable tourism and greater accessibility to resources like the internet, small communities and travel experts are continuing to come together to create successful CBT programs.

Chalalan Ecolodge, Bolivia

The Chalalan Ecolodge is a joint indigenous community tourism initiative of the rainforest community of San José de Uchupiamonas and Conservation International (CI) in the Bolivian Amazon. Created in 1995 by a group of villagers and supported by CI through training in skills like management, housekeeping, and tour guiding, Chalalan is the oldest community-based enterprise in Bolivia. By February 2001, the indigenous community received full ownership of the property from CI and now directly supports 74 families.

Korzok, India

A local monastery in Korzok, India
A local monastery in Korzok, India. Andreas - Assembly Hall Korzok Gompa / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0

Known as the highest permanent civilization on Earth, Korzok village in Ladakh, India, rests at an altitude of 15,000 feet. Although the main source of income for most families here comes from pashmina, the village has developed a CBT model based on homestays with younger community members earning jobs as porters, cooks, and tour guides. During the tourist season from June to September, the occupancy rate for homestays is 80%, earning each family an average of $700 to $1,200 during those four months. For comparison, the average yearly income from pashmina ranges between $320 and $480, making CBT much more lucrative.

Tamchy, Kyrgyzstan

The Central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan has fully embraced CBT as a tool for growth. The Kyrgyz Community Based Tourism Association has developed 15 different diverse CBT programs around the country, helping to organize and train remote mountain communities in tourism to help improve their economies and living conditions. One of the most successful is the tiny village of Tamchy, found right next to Issyk-Kul, the biggest lake in Kyrgyzstan and one of the largest mountain lakes in the world. The people of Tamchy welcome tourists to stay with them in traditional yurts and homestays while learning about the unique culture there.

Termas de Papallacta, Ecuador

Back in 1994, a group of six Ecuadorians from the small village of Papallacta village in Napo Province purchased a property that included natural thermal pools. The village is on the road to the Amazon from Quito, so it was a popular route but without much draw for tourism outside of that. The property started as a small spa and accommodation space for travelers but has since grown into the country’s most popular thermal wellness resort and one of the largest employers in the area. Termas de Papallacta also runs an independent foundation that helps train the local community in environmental issues and is certified by the Rainforest Alliance.

View Article Sources
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