How to Transform the Tourist Industry towards Economic Opportunities for Local Communities

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Co-Authored by Charles Schwartz

The United Nations proclaimed 2017 as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development. As the year draws to a close, it is well worth our time to reflect on why sustainable tourism is important, the potential it offers to local communities, and what needs to continue to be transformed so that the tourism industry can effect positive change in marginalized communities around the world.

The Underlying Problem with the Tourist Industry

The tourism industry collectively accounts for 10% of all global economic activity and over 7.6 trillion dollars in revenue generated. As with most other sectors of our economy, however, those who benefit from the tourism sector are those with wealth, education, and access to technology that allow them to offer food, lodging, tours, and other offers to tourists, travelers, and vacationers.

In many cases, the people who are originally from the communities considered as tourist hotspots receive little to no economic benefit as absentee affluent entrepreneurs come into the community to build hotels, restaurants, and other tourist-related infrastructure. In the worst of scenarios, the gentrification of tourist areas escalates the price of land and might even force people out of the community that their family has lived in for generations.

In El Salvador, to name just one example, the government, through the promotion of the “Ruta Fresca” and the “Pueblos Vivos” national tourism program, has invested millions of dollars in tourist promotion in the area. The bilateral cooperation program between the United States and El Salvador called FOMILENIO also invested millions of dollars in tourism development in different areas around the country in an effort to promote the Sustainable Development Goals through the Agenda 2030.

While these investments certainly did improve tourist infrastructure and increase the traffic of tourists into certain regions, most of the economic resources ended up in the hands of wealthy business owners living in the capital while people from the tourist communities are left with nothing more than poorly paid jobs that are well below the national minimum wage.

Tourism, then, instead of being an impulse that generated decent economic opportunities for communities, became a profit opportunity for people who are not part of the local communities. The main problem is the poor distribution of economic opportunities generated by tourism.

From a policy perspective, state investment in the tourist market has not reached the neediest people, but has been co-opted by those with wealth. The tourist routes promoted by the government increased the flow of tourists to the area, but the opportunities have not been equally shared.

The Potential of Sustainable, Community-Focused Tourism Projects

Despite these obvious challenges, the tourism industry certainly does constitute an important economic opportunity that marginalized communities can benefit from. In many rural and marginalized areas, tourism is the only economic opportunity for small communities where other industries and jobs are difficult to come by. In agrarian economies, community-owned tourism projects can add another needed source of income while also limiting the vulnerability that small farmers often face, especially now with the challenges brought by global warming.

It is important to affirm that the conditions that allow the tourism market to flourish in any given region are mostly constructed and protected through community efforts. The mountains and forests that backpackers hike through are often protected through community forestry initiatives or simply by individual farmers who protect the trees on their land. The secluded beaches that we flock to around the world have been cared for by fishing communities in efforts to protect their economic livelihood.

Once tourist money starts to flow into a community, however, very few individuals usually amass the economic benefits, most of whom do not participate in the community and in the efforts to build and maintain optimal conditions that allow the tourist industry to flourish. In essence, people who bring capital to invest in tourist regions essentially extract equity and capital gains from a region they are exploiting.

The Challenge to Transform the Tourism Sector into a Commons

If the tourist sector is truly going to be sustainable and benefit rural and marginalized communities around the world, then we need to transform tourism into a community good (commons). If a community participates in the construction and preservation of the conditions that allow for tourism, then they should have the right to participate in the benefits that it brings.

While tourism has rarely been considered a commons, author David Bollier states that "there is no master inventory of commons because of commons arises whenever a given community decides it wishes to manage resource in a collective manner, with special regard for equitable access, use and sustainability.”

If tourism is truly to function as a commons, both the visiting tourist and the receiving community need to find ways to collectively govern the “resource” of tourism. Travelers need to make an effort to find hotels, restaurants, and tours that are owned and operated by the communities they visit, and where the economic resources they bring can flow directly into the hands of the community.

In the case of small, rural communities, finding ways to take advantage of the internet to connect with conscientious travelers and tourists is essential. A decade ago, there was certainly a lack of access to technology in many rural areas that did not allow communities to take advantage of the internet. Today, however, there are very few areas where people do not carry around smartphones with access to Facebook, WhatsApp, and Google. The problem is that most people in rural communities, especially young people, have not learned how to use the internet for something more substantial than chatting with girlfriends or calling family members who have migrated abroad.

Learning how to use social media to connect with tourists who want to come into a community is one possibility that access to technology offers. Small communities need to educate themselves on how to best use the technology that they have, so that they can connect with the conscientious traveler interested in participating in the emerging tourist commons.