Community based solutions are one of the most popular answers for most aid issues (CMAM, CBPR, CBPD&M) so whilst on holiday I thought I should try community based tourism. The basic idea is that communities invite tourists to come and stay with them and experience what their day to day lives are like.
We’ve talked before about slum tourism and voluntourism so I was interested to see if this type of tourism would have the same voyeuristic feel.
The interesting piece comes from the need for there to be a community. This isn’t about individual families opening their doors up, which would be a form of B&B. But rather a community coming together to jointly agree to a programme offer for tourists. Yes, often the act of coming together is influenced or triggered by an external factor, most often a foreigner. However, the ownership should lie with the community.
Where I stayed, the community had been organised in cooperatives for over a decade. This was how they managed and sold their crops. This was how they accessed funds and capacity development. More recently they had set up a women-only cooperative which originally focused on the rights of women, but now leads the community tourism initiatives. The set up because an INGO came looking for women only groups to deliver their programmes through. No surprise there. But they still exist and are expanding several years later.
My experience started by taking the local ‘bus’ up the mountain where I was met by a young man who was to be my guide for the day. Together we walked two hours through the forest to reach the rural community who were hosting me. He talked non stop throughout: sharing insights about the flora and fauna around us, the structure of his community, the serious impact of a recent agricultural crisis, and the future of the country. When we arrived in the community there were signs explaining the rules, a map and a friendly wave from a number of passing farmers. I was served a hearty breakfast in the homestead of the family where I would stay that night. The lady who cooked talked me through how each part had been made and explained where the ingredients came from.
We headed off for more walking, passing the local primary school where the mother of my host family was a teacher. The children waved but didn’t seem too distracted from their play time activities. The school timetable has been adjusted to allow children to undertake their responsibilities on the farms, though it’s illegal for them to work a full day. An additional secondary school has been set up on Saturday afternoons for those who had to leave school early during the war. The teacher came to welcome me, but it quickly became apparent she wanted to check the extent of my language skills. You can’t blame her.
The rest of the day was spent learning about the history, customs and infrastructure of the community. I saw the offices of the cooperatives, their jointly owned agricultural equipment and buildings. Every single person that we passed greeted us without fuss or amusement. We explored the various farms, and I was shown how the community had diversified their crops to become more resilient to potential future crises. Animals wandered around: some enclosed, others not. On other shorter tours there has always been a little shop waiting at the end, but this time I had to ask if there was some coffee I could buy to take back with me.
Over dinner the father of the family told me in depth about their experiences during the war of several decades ago; how the community had reunited after the peace arrived; and how they planned together for the future. There was no discussion of sending children away to work apart from to study at the university in the nearest town (2 hours drive). Those who had finished degrees had focused on agriculture, engineering or tourism. To date they all returned to the community. He told me about the process of crop diversification in more detail – the community lost everything due to a disease that wiped out their mono-crop. Through the cooperatives they jointly bought new seeds and learnt together what would grow in their soil. They were following some of the rules of perma culture and were selling the crops as fair trade and organic. We talked late in to the night and he invited my questions, continually checking that I felt comfortable.
We rose at 4am to start the day: milking the cow, feeding the animals and preparing breakfast. A hearty breakfast and strong coffee was had by all before the family all headed off to the farms. By family I include the various nephews, cousins and adopted children who lived there. Before leaving the father thanked me. I was surprised and said that I should be thanking them. They lived in an area of true beauty, had suffered through war and natural disaster and yet seemed so resolute and calm. I left full of inspiration and a desire to simplify my life to better value the important things.
One of the things we discussed during my stay was how they could better promote the tourism offer they were making to groups. The women’s cooperative had a programme for 10-30 individuals who would be spread across households in the community. It would include a number of activities and involve almost everyone in their community at one point or another. We talked about the potential negatives of an influx of visitors, but they felt sure that at this point the economic advantages and the educational opportunity it provided for them and their visitors outweighed that. I look forward to returning in 5 years time to see how the community copes with an inevitable increase in backpackers.