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A Guide to Community Tourism Experiences

By Carolyn Heller

What is community tourism, why are local communities embracing it and where can you go to join a community tourism project?

The sharp peaks of the mountains jut above the swirling clouds as we hike into the woods, looking for blooms along the forest floor. Our guide, Galindo Parra, is leading my friends and me on an orchid-spotting walk. Here—outside the village of Yunguilla, at 2,600 meters high in the Ecuadorian cloud forest—we find flowers ranging from pale white to mottled gold to vibrant purple.

A pioneer in community tourism in Ecuador, Yunguilla sits 90 minutes north of Quito. A group of residents launched a project back in the 1990s to try to make the tiny community more economically and environmentally sustainable. They set up a cheese and yogurt-making facility, planted an organic garden and began opening their homes to visitors.

During our time in Yunguilla, we stay with the multi-generational Collaguazo family, sharing meals of squash soup and grilled chicken and swapping stories about our lives. We explore the rainforest, sample marmalade that local women make from fruits like uvillas (golden berries) and chigualcan (mountain papaya), and for two brief days, feel like we were part of this Ecuadorian community.

Experiences like these in communities around the world can be transformative for travellers, says Paula Vlamings, chief impact officer for Tourism Cares, a US-based non-profit organization whose mission is to make travel more socially, environmentally, and economically sustainable.

But what is community tourism? Where do you find community tourism projects? And how can we ensure that community tourism experiences benefit not just travellers like my friends and me—but also the residents of the places that we’re visiting?

Community tourism is community-led

Community tourism is any tourism-related venture that’s owned, led, and run by members of the community themselves, explains Jamie Sweeting, who serves both as president of the non-profit Planeterra Foundation and as vice president for sustainability at tour operator G Adventures.

Community tourism can be a homestay with a family, going fishing with a local fisherman, or helping with a town’s construction or agricultural projects. It can be sharing stories or meals, learning about traditional weaving practices, or touring a city with members of a women’s cooperative. You can find community-based tourism projects almost anywhere in the world, in both urban and rural areas.

What sets community tourism apart—and what makes these projects successful and sustainable—is that it doesn’t simply focus on what a traveller might want to do or experience. It’s putting the needs and desires of the community first.

“Every traveller eats, sleeps, shops, tours, and needs transport. And every one of those touch points is an opportunity to shift into a model that's going to have a positive impact for that community,” says Vlamings.

Shifting the model to ownership and agency

Historically, many tourism experiences were set up on a “colonialized basis,” says Sweeting, where the only people tourists might encounter were in serving roles. They might work in hotels, restaurants, or attractions that were often foreign-owned, or provide entertainment, such as dance or music shows, where the performers had no ability to control or even offer input into the experience. Not only are these experiences often inauthentic, but travellers aren’t able to have an equitable conversation or exchange with the people they might meet through these interactions.

Community tourism puts the needs and desires of the community first.

In contrast, when a community controls tourism ventures, the people who are hosting you have the power. They are meeting you as an equal.

Sweeting says that two elements must be present in a community tourism project. The first is ownership. The second factor is agency. Is the community defining the experience and offering it the way that they want? Are they telling their story their way, rather than as something manufactured for tourists? Does it feel like the experience is empowering the community or are they being exploited?

When a community is giving visitors access to their history, their culture, or their natural environment, Sweeting says that going through the process of determining how they want to share these kinds of experiences can become a very empowering journey.

Sweeting adds that in a well-designed community tourism experience, everyone involved in providing that experience will benefit financially as well, whether it’s the family who’s hosting a homestay, the guide who’s leading a hike, or the cooperative that’s growing the coffee beans for visitors' morning cup.

One example is La Base Lamay, a community tourism venture in Peru’s Sacred Valley. The organization offers guided hikes, and experiences that support local businesses, such as beekeeping, fishing, or raising guinea pigs. A café and store sell locally made products, including beer, smoke trout, sourdough bread and apples, as well as art created by community members.

For visitors, this translates to an opportunity to meet directly with local hosts, learning who they are, what they do and where they’re from. Social interactions are key to the experiences.

“It's not like I will make you a show or I'm working for you. We will walk together,” says Negri. “We talk. It’s part of the essence of the community.”

The project supports Lamay’s 6,000 residents, of which about half live in the village, with the remainder residing in rural communities higher in the mountains. Traditionally, they farmed potatoes, quinoa and other crops.  However, according to CEO and co-founder Franco Negri, it has become increasingly difficult to earn a living up in the mountains. Younger people are leaving the villages for the cities, or for jobs such as mining, which have a negative impact on the environment.

While the organization’s goal is to support sustainable development and conservation, it is also a business. “Sustainability is nice, but money is important,” says Nergi. “People have to make a living,”

Mapping meaningful travel

Community tourism isn’t only an experience that you can have in small villages or countries in the Global South. An organization in Amsterdam called Plastic Whale takes visitors on a cruise through the city’s canals, in a boat made of recycled plastic; instead of simply sightseeing, visitors go “fishing” for plastic, which is then recycled. Visitors help to clean up the canals, while also learning about the city’s environmental challenges. Community-based projects, such as Plastic Whale, “take you from being a spectator to being engaged and part of the solution,” says Vlamings.

One of Tourism Cares’ projects has been to work with destinations to create “meaningful travel maps,” which highlight community tourism projects. The main objective of these maps is to introduce these ventures to tour operators, travel agents, and other tourism businesses, but they can be a resource for individual travellers as well.

In Colombia, for example, the meaningful travel map features experiences such as rafting with former members of the Colombian rebel group FARC who have become certified outdoor guides, or learning about the foods and culture of an Afro-Colombian community on the country’s Pacific Coast.

The North American meaningful travel map highlights a range of experiences, from cooking classes led by home cooks of different cultures in New York City, to Indigenous-run tours in northern Alberta, to a community soul food café in New Orleans that provides job training opportunities for at-risk youth.

Creating transformative experiences

In the 1980s, John Gunter and his family lived in Churchill, Manitoba for four years, when his father worked as a manager for the Royal Bank of Canada. At the time, Churchill was known to professional wildlife photographers, filmmakers, and naturalists, he says, but there was no leisure tourism industry. His parents saw an opportunity to begin developing and promoting the region to a broader travel audience, and Frontiers North Adventures was born.

Today, the company runs trips that bring visitors to this sub-Arctic community, to view polar bears, watch beluga whales, and experience the northern lights. For Gunter, now the CEO and president of Frontiers North, supporting the local community has always been key to their business.

“It's our goal to have our guests become invested in the community and environment around Churchill,” he says.

For example, Frontiers North provides scholarships for students graduating from the local high school and has long supported a variety of community initiatives. They also encourage their guests to remain engaged in local environmental or social causes, whether by supporting the local food bank or conservation organizations, such as Polar Bears International.

But Gunter says that one of the most important elements of their trips is creating transformative experiences for its guests—including through connecting them with locals who have knowledge about issues affecting the community, and inviting them to have difficult conversations about topics like reconciliation, colonization and climate change.

“We don't want guests simply checking things off a bucket list or putting a notch on their belt of experiences,” he says. “Guests are going to come with their own preconceived notions. It's our desire to knock our guests off kilter.”

“We sell the romance of locking your gaze with a wild polar bear. We get our guests booked and then we trick them. We end up providing what we hope is a really educational vacation.”

How to be a better visitor to local communities

So, how can you be a better traveller to communities abroad?

Begin by remembering that you’re a guest, suggests Sweeting. “How would you act when you’re going to your mother-in-law’s? That’s a good place to start,” he says. “In tourism, they call it a ‘destination,’ but the people call it ‘home.’”

Enquire in advance about any protocols, behavioural norms, or dress codes, and anything else to help ensure that you know what’s culturally acceptable. It’s okay to ask about anything that you might be concerned or confused about, too.

“Be humble and direct and honest,” suggests Sweeting. Treat your hosts with respect, even if a situation feels a little awkward or confusing. They want you to have a positive experience, and ideally, you’ll learn something from each of these interactions.

Whether you book an experience directly with a community or through a larger tour company or travel provider, you want to ensure that it’s the community that benefits. Ask about where your money is going and be thoughtful about your purchases when you’re on the road.

“Every single dollar that a traveller can spend that stays in that local community is really important,” advises Vlamings.

For communities like Yunguilla, opening their homes to visitors didn’t initially seem like an obvious win. Galindo Parra told us that some residents called the community members who began developing their early tourism venture “los locos” (“the crazy ones”) asking why international travellers would even consider coming to their remote village. Yet today, they operate one of Ecuador's longest-running community tourism projects—a venture that he said has transformed the community economically and socially.

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