Rethinking the way we travel: A look into community-based tourism

Rethinking the way we travel: A look into community-based tourism

Nepal has long been a tourist destination. Travelers have often come from far and wide seeking out the rich flora and fauna, mountains, and architecture that Nepal has to offer. However, while the country has been touted as a natural and cultural haven, this narrative has also limited the scope of Nepal’s tourism to its landscape and heritage. 

So if not for its scenery or ancient architecture, how can we better market Nepal as a tourism destination? One way to go about this is to view Nepal as an experience as opposed to a destination. This means promoting destinations as a place to experience unique cultures through diversified tourism products.

But as we shift our perception of what tourism in Nepal should mean, are we also rethinking how we involve the people who make this industry viable? Are we keeping local communities in the center, and making sure that they are the ones benefiting from the business that the industry brings? This requires that we respect inter-generational knowledge and lifestyle while giving direct benefits of tourism revenue that is brought in by the destination. 

This is where Community-Based Tourism (CBT) comes in. CBT is a model of tourism that aligns itself with a destination’s culture, history, and natural resources. This type of tourism is sustainable and builds on the local people’s strengths and promotes socio-economic well-being. It is one of the best ways to amplify the voices of rural communities, diversify the tourism destination from the mainstream ones and reduce economic leakage

Community-based tourism versus economic leakage

Ideally, tourism money spent at a tourist destination should return to the local economy. The money spent should be used to support other local businesses, ultimately building a more robust tourism value chain. 

Unfortunately, a significant amount of money while traveling to various destinations ends up somewhere else. For various reasons, the money travelers spend in their travels often does not reach local communities. Instead, a bulk of the revenue ends up spread across numerous levels of corporate profits and business interests. 

The philosophy of CBT suggests that taking responsibility as a traveler is a key way to promote sustainable and responsible tourism.At the end of the day, it is up to the travelers to accept that tourism leakage is unethical because it causes inequality and choose the tours/trips wisely. 

Demanding products and services unavailable to local markets are agents of import leakage. For instance, asking for Camembert cheese in one of the rural mountainous communities of Nepal instead of enjoying the Yak cheese leads to funds shifting away from local economies. Staying with big multinational hotel chains in remote areas leaves local communities with nothing, instead benefitting bigger businesses. Opting to stay with the locals in community homestays and lodges support communities in diversifying their income and give travelers an immersive travel experience. 

Promoting local ownership and leadership 

Local communities are the foundation of a community-based travel experience. Including cultural performances, and staying with locals is vital, but the process of strengthening CBT goes further than just that.  To strengthen CBT in a real sense, one must make sure to include and engage minorities, youth, women, and other underrepresented groups. 

Tour operators or destination management companies need to collaborate, create partnerships and take action with local communities. This in turn diversifies experiences and promotes lesser-known areas while also providing job opportunities and leadership skills. In our experience, the hosts in our network —especially women— have expressed an increased sense of resilience, the ability to lead various initiatives inside and outside their communities, and financial independence. 

Women from the Panauti community homestay and the Mai Pokhari community homestay have expressed a palpable sense of improvement in their lives. Managing and operating community homestays has also helped them gain more respect from their communities as they have become more financially independent.

While the COVID-19 pandemic had many negative impacts on tourism. The economic pause also showed that CBT has helped locals  strengthen other entrepreneurial skills to venture into other businesses. Anjana Shrestha, a Community Homestay host in Panauti, managed to turn  her hobby into a business during the first wave of the pandemic. Shrestha shared, “The pandemic allowed me to diversify my income and start an online business of making masks and scrunchies.”

Another community homestay in Shree Antu, Ilam, was also working to rebuild its infrastructure better during the pandemic pause. Pramila Rai Magar from the Shree Antu Community Homestay shared, “It is important to maintain and upgrade our homestay’s standards even during the uncertainty, as I am sure whenever the pandemic ends, travelers would return to our beautiful community.”

Read also: Five Ways Community-based Tourism Benefits the Locals

Shared action and responsibility

In the case of Nepal, many community homestays and experiences have contributed to adding new tourist destinations in the country. Sirubari in Syanjha and Narchyang in the Annapurna Circuit area are prime examples of this. They are proof that community-based tourism also diversifies tourist destinations and promotes lesser-known areas, creating benefits for those who truly belong to a region. 

However, planning travel to such regions should not solely be on the shoulders of the traveler. The travel industry too should share responsibility in creating a sustainable future by providing travelers with varied options to make their travel sustainable, responsible, ethical, and environmentally friendly. This could translate to anything from tour operators including immersive local destinations in their itineraries to curating unique cultural experiences. 

As a tour and travel operator, our role includes not only promoting the existing tourism products and experiences, but also supporting the communities in curating immersive travel experiences to preserve and promote their culture. For example, Panauti, though not far away from Kathmandu, was in the shadows for non-domestic travelers until our community homestay model started promoting the ancient Newar town. The introduction of CBT practices to the town allowed for the participation of locals  in tourism activities and helped divert traffic from highly popular destinations to an equally beautiful yet unexplored location.

Even more interestingly, the influx of business also helped revive Panauti’s culture of playing Dhime Baja, a traditional instrument. A lack of interest amongst youths in the region had driven the art of the instrument to the brink of extinction. However, the curation of the Panauti homestay experience in 2019 presented an opportunity to local youths to relearn their own culture and preserve a traditional form of art.

Industry insight on CBT

The philosophy of CBT has for some time been indeed been gaining some momentum; both in Nepal and the rest of the world. A good number of creditable tour operators and industry experts have been working to amplify the concept.

Anton Moeskops of Shoestring Travel in a discussion with Community Homestay Network shared about his own effort to understand the value that CBT presented. Moeskops shared, “It is difficult to promote the CBT or offbeat travel experiences, especially if travelers have never heard or visited the country itself. However, as a product manager for destinations in Asia and Latin America, I made sure to visit three community homestays in Nepal last year to understand and communicate the value of the product.”

Moeskops is not the only one who sees the value in tour operators learning and implementing the benefits of CBT. Nora Eichkorn, an expert on sustainable tourism working with the Import Promotion Desk (IPD), also shares similar views. Eichkorn stated, “Tour operators and organizations have a crucial role in promoting CBT to help communities build experience in hospitality and interact with travelers while managing the travelers’ expectations.”

In fact, organizations such as Planeterra and World Challenge UK have been giving their best to incorporate and promote more sustainable travel practices across their respective audiences. Priyanka Singh who represents Planterra shared that the company did their best to encourage community-based enterprises by helping share the best practices they discovered across a region.

Additionally, Liz Tuck, who manages product and sustainability team for World Challenge UK, pointed out that tour operators need to account for the experiences of the destination community, as opposed to just the experiences of their clientele. Tuck stated, “Many times we try to ensure the safety of travelers, however, it is equally important to mitigate and think of ways, especially during times like the pandemic, to minimize the risk of transmission to the communities.”

Paving a way forward

While tour operators are responsible for communicating and offering diversified tourism products to the world, they are also uniquely positioned to help communities stay at the center of tourism. Both travelers and locals should be able to be ready to accept each other’s culture and manage expectations respectively. 

In addition to that, tour operators and travelers must seek ways to minimize and mitigate economic leakage. Tourists have traveled for many years, but have always been told the same things about destinations and cultures. This is starting to change, as more travelers have been wanting to explore beyond the usual experiences. 

Even tour companies have begun to look outside of their usual offerings. The responsibility of tour operators is not only in marketing new destinations but also in presenting them with a different narrative that has not been used before. 

Communicating various CBT products will help tour operators give back to communities by providing them with sustainable employment opportunities to keep them at the center of development. Undoubtedly, community-based tourism has the potential to amplify the voices of the rural while widening the scope of the overall tourism industry.  

Read also: Community-based tourism and how it works for a sustainable future

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