Empowering Community-Led Tourism

Marina Novelli- Prof. of Tourism and International Development. Academic Lead – Responsible Futures Research and the Enterprise Agenda University of Brighton, UK
The tourism sector is characterized by an unaccounted number of myths and misconception, such as promises of development, wealth growth and sustainable futures to name just a few. Research shows however that results have been often far from such positive undertakings, with variable levels of environmental, social and economic impacts.

So the question is: “How can we try and make tourism a better sector for all?”

Maybe starting by acting more selectively when accepting an assignment as a tourism specialist, by taking responsibility when choosing a holiday, by acting at the best of our abilities when offering a product of service and, most importantly, by respecting the context in which we operate and the people that host us?

Indeed, resident communities have become the center of multiple discussions in tourism studies, but the fact is that, unless they are the subject of some kind of ‘theatrical performance’ in the tourism ‘host-guest encounter’, they remain largely ignored with their engagement in decision making remaining generally tokenistic.

Generally, when thinking of tourism, imagery of pristine places, sandy beaches, natural reserves, heritage sites, holiday resort, iconic sceneries, airports, luxury hotels, and much more, come to mind…we tend not to think about space politics, social justice, gender equality, poverty alleviation, environmental management, or the impact that epidemics and conflict may have on a destinations and its people. As Western consumers, we tend to ignore mobility rights and the privileged freedom of circulation across the globe granted by holding the ‘right passport’. We only come close to acknowledging these as if our own right to travel is suddenly hindered by a nativist and populist political climate pushing for questionable travel bans based on nationality or religious believes or worse if imposed by an unexpected epidemic, such as the Covid-19.

Globally, tourism is increasingly portrayed as able to contribute to local sustainable development. International Development Agencies, national and regional development bodies, private and third sector organisations see tourism as important tools for socio-economic development, cross-sector integration, peace building and environmental preservation and so on. However, despite their many benefits, my research showed that tourism development comes with a number of complications. My research revealed new insights into the necessity for a shift from a 20th to a 21st century conceptual framing of tourism planning paradigms, which pays close attention to the rapidly changing macro environmental conditions in which tourism operates.

In today’s volatile economic climate, changing consumer behaviors have an increasing impact on global commerce. The speed of markets’ change, the blurring of traditional demographic boundaries, the growing power of the consumer through technology and the nature of globalization are making trend determination and their adequate exploitation essential for success. This is particularly important in the travel and tourism sector, where the traveller’s selection of goods and services is instrumental for living an experience. It’s not a new fact that customers are different and increasingly discerning of the products and services they buy. They are more and more tech-enabled and more time pressured. They have less and less time in which to make decisions, but higher and higher expectations that those decisions will prove to have been the right ones, so Destinations and National Tourism Organisations face significant challenges to address them.

In many developing and emerging economies, tourism has been positioned as the great development hope for peripheral regions and communities and as a potential driver in the development of a new urban and rural areas’ experience economy. On the other hand, the climate crisis has posed some critical questions on the sustainability of travelling by air…and I won’t be the one telling those remote communities that we are no longer coming because of the climate crisis!

A growing number of academic and industry-based research points to an encouraging trend of socially and environmentally conscientious hosts and travellers, who employ tourism as a transformative medium to promote sustainable practices and consequently a more conscious living on our planet. In other words, increasingly, transformative travellers use their trips to reinvent themselves and the world they live in. It is in this context, that we see the increasing need for conscious and transformative holidays as a trend where responsible travelling can provide the means to change both lifestyles, as well as increase the positive and caring impact made on destinations and their communities - whether through women empowerment, conservation or poverty alleviation focused interventions.

Recalling the potential of tourism to advance the universal 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, it is hoped that responsible practices will increasingly be placed right at the heart of the agenda of many tourism operators and inspire many more consumers. However, the danger in approaching tourism only form a commercially focussed perspective and reacting purely to shifting market demands remains. One would hope that this will influence the way change may increasingly come from “bottom up” actions, grounded into place-based communities’ agency and resilience, a system where tourism operate responsibly within a visitor economy that works for all.


Destinations that are engaging the local community in developing sustainable tourism policies and plans: a case study of Kenya, Africa

The Kenya Vision 2030 is a national development blueprint that has recognized tourism as one of the key economic drivers that will help transform Kenya into a newly industrialized, highly competitive and middle-level income country.  One of the strategies to ensure Kenya continuous to offer high-end, diverse and distinctive visitor experience is the creation of new high value niche products such as cultural tourism, eco-sports and water-based tourism.

Local communities are well placed to contribute significantly to the strategy of niche products with the focus on cultural tourism. Cultural tourism as a form of Community Based Tourism (CBT) compliments all the other activities and is available in all parts of the country.  The Kenyan tourism industry players believe that this product has not been fully developed or exploited and holds a lot of potential for the Country and the communities as well.

Successful CBTs in Kenya have mainly relied on donor and NGOs funding, and it is widely accepted that the long-term development of CBT needs commercial principles and a linkage to mainstream tourism. Against this backdrop, a 3-year initiative titled, ‘Enhancing Sustainable Tourism Innovation for Community Empowerment in Kenya (SUS-TOUR)’, was developed by Ecotourism Kenya a not for profit business membership association in collaboration with partners within the framework of Switch Africa Green to support CBT development in Kenya.

Community-Based Tourism Enterprises (CBTEs) in Kenya face a myriad of problems ranging from poor governance to low product quality and markets. The SUS-TOUR project has developed tools aimed at assisting the CBTEs in Kenya to improve their businesses. Some of the tools developed include a Market-oriented Innovation Tool, which is presented in the form of a practical training manual, a CBT-product Marketing Guideline and a Sustainable CBTE Checklist for Micro, Small & Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) in the CBT segment of tourism.

SUS-TOUR found out that a significant number of CBTEs in Kenya run their enterprises without incorporating principles of sustainable CBT practices.  Consequently, they model their businesses mainly based on personal experiences which might not be consistent with the sustainable CBT principles. After all, the policy framework for CBTEs in Kenya is weak and communities are largely unaware of organizations that have established guidelines and standards for CBT in Kenya. It is because of this situation that the SUS-TOUR developed a checklist for CBTEs. The major objective of the checklist is to assist CBTEs in the self-assessment of their businesses and gauge how they align to the principles of sustainable CBT.

The checklist was developed based on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Community Based Tourism Standards and the 10-Year Framework of Programmes (10YFP) on Sustainable Consumption and Production. It identified 10 principles of sustainable community-based tourism which include community involvement, partnerships, legal status, and social dignity, benefit sharing mechanisms, local economies, culture, natural resources management, and good governance.  Indicators are described under each principle. The project intends to develop a detailed CBT Guidebook based on the principles identified in the checklist.

The SUS-TOUR project was developed with the aim of providing innovative solutions to promote sustainable CBT in the country as they face major challenges, especially in the aspects of product development, marketing and governance. The SUSTOUR’s CBTE checklist will help in addressing some of these challenges as it is likely to enhance the product development and governance for CBTEs.


Sustainable Tourism Practices: Planning & Design

Cillian Murphy MSc., Cillian Murphy Consulting, Ireland

The question then is how do we ensure tourism does actually deliver for the community within which it is taking place? How can tourism service the community needs, rather then the other way round? We need to change our thinking around three things, the metrics we use to measure it, the marketing we use to deliver it, and ultimately, the model we use to develop it.

The Metrics;

We need to measure tourism in a different way, it is no longer appropriate to take the easy route and simply measure the volumes of visitors; large numbers of visitors are no guarantee that the economy of the host community is benefitting. A full hotel is not necessarily a profitable one. So we need to measure tourism not by visitor numbers, but by how effective, or not, it is in creating local prosperity, local employment, a healthy local environment and net local benefits for the host community within which it occurs. We need to start measuring what matters at host community level, its value to the host community, because if we get it wrong, it is at a local level where the negative impacts will be felt first, and where the push back from irresponsible development will start.

The Marketing;

The most important thing any destination should do is control the narrative around their own home, it is easily forgotten by the tourism industry that these are not just destinations; they are home to a lot of people.

The standard tourism marketing system has a glaring design fault, those who manage the story do not have to manage the destination. Using local areas to market the national product in the international marketplace without considering the local consequences is irresponsible. In many places this is threatening the social fabric of the host communities, creating localized capacity issues and negative environmental impacts, it is also delivering poor visitor experiences, and ultimately undermining the sustainability of the local tourism industry and the community reliant upon it. Destination marketing needs to start with capacity building host communities so they understand there are consequences to how their place is marketed, so they understand what those consequences may be and allowing them to decide what story should be told about their home and who is telling it.

The Model;

The current system is marketing led, we need to move to a community development led model. This model leads to an assest based, co-created industry, more responsible marketing and a sustainable destination, one not founded on what tourists want, but founded instead on why the community need it, what role does it perform for them. I co-founded Loop Head Tourism in 2009, a community based destination development organisation based on the Loop Head Peninsula, www.loophead.ie midway along the Wild Atlantic Way in Ireland. Our goal was to ensure tourism development was done by us, for us.

The loss of fishing and farming incomes meant we needed a replacement economic driver for the area. This shift in thinking meant we realized that tourism itself, was not the goal, rather it is just a tool, one, if used properly had the capacity to deliver economic sustainability for our coastal community. This meant minimizing the leakage from tourism income out of our community. I use the image of a leaky bucket to represent a destinations economy. The water flowing in is the tourism income stream, but the bucket has a lot of little holes in it, money each business spends outside the destination in raw goods, services and wages, the leakage. How do we fill up the bucket?

  1. Standard, marketing driven, tourism development strategies, focus on finding more and more taps, to keep pouring water in faster then it leaks out…it is wastefull, inefficient, and expensive because you are paying twice, once to find the taps, and secondly to clean up the water flowing all over the floor.
  2. The community development led approach looks to block up the holes, for instance, by encouraging businesses to look at retaining their purchasing and wages within the locality.......... Strategically, one could also prioritize giving access or exposure to those operators who deliver the highest local benefit instead of those simply delivering the highest volume of traffic.

There Is More Than Just One Story

Gary Estcourt, Director, BCN Heritage, Sydney, Australia

A few years ago I worked for a heritage grants program. Applicants submitted Expressions of Interest for projects. These could be as simple as a vague desire along the lines of ‘we want to use our local heritage to develop connections in the community and increase visitation.’

I met with the local historical society in Haberfield, an inner west Sydney suburb, that had literally been cut in half by the construction of a new Motorway.
They had applied for a grant for interpretive signage around the suburb. The society had worked out the text for the sign, the images and where they were going to go. They just needed the funds to get the signs made and installed.

When I met them, my first question was what do you want to achieve? The answer was easy they wanted to put in signs because that’s what they knew and because signs generally get funded.
What they wanted to achieve was a very different thing. They wanted to celebrate their stories, create connections and reinvigorate a sense of community.

his project wasn’t about just signs. A historical society might put signs in. A historical society working with the arts organisation could fill walls with murals.

Working with schools could be a way to teach students how to undertake historical research. They could then come up with the stories that would go onto the signage to be installed. Giving a new generation a connection and sense of ownership over the stories and history of the area.

When I asked if there were any other stories that related to specific ethnicities or cultural groups that needed to be included I was told:
Apart from the post-WW2 Italian migration, there isn’t really any of that sort of thing around here. Plus, Leichardt already has an Italian Festival.

Queen Salote Tupou III, was the Queen of Tonga from 1918 to her death in 1965; some of her honours included:

  • Order of the British Empire.
  • Dame Grand Cross of the Order of Saint Michael and Saint George.
  • Dame Grand Cross of Order of St John.

At one point in our meeting one of the gentlemen, almost as an aside said - you see up the street there, well the queen of Tonga and her entourage and family would come and stay there for months at a time because of the strong influence of Methodist missionaries in the Pacific. So back to our signs….

This is what I learnt from this experience.

If you only speak to one group or one person you only get one story or one approach. Whether it is trying to come up with solutions to over-tourism, trying to develop sustainable tourism products or trying to find a meaningful way to celebrate the history and heritage of a place - the most important thing you can do is speak to the community.
In my experience when it comes to engaging with the community as a basic set of practical steps I would suggest the following:

  • Find out what you want to achieve; not the outputs but the outcomes. It is generally not about the signs, it is about what the signs are trying to do.
  • Speak to as many relevant groups in the community who can contribute to these outcomes as you can. By imaginative and innovative in who could be involved.
  • Get them together, none of us knows it all. Set the ground rules and co-design what the final outcomes will look like. I’m not going to go through all the different way that you can run co-design sessions, that is a series of articles in itself.
  • Come up with the steps that you need to go through to get from where you are now to the final project.
  • Break the project into discrete steps so the different parts of it can be done at different time utilizing different funding sources or grants as they become available.

Ultimately, the only way that any outcomes are going to be beneficial to a community is if the outcomes come from that community.


LUCA D'ANGELO, Director, Dolomiti Paganella Future Lab, Italy

With almost 5000 inhabitants and more than 2 million tourist visits per year, our alpine territory, DOLOMITI PAGANELLA (North Italy) is often held up as a case study for its tourism organizational model. Still, diverse future challenges await us. Precisely for this reason, as a DMO we would now like more people to have a word in the conversation regarding our future.

How can you use tourism to create a better future for our community, our tourist and our beautiful natural alpine environment? This is the main, big challenge that we are trying to face with our most important project ever, the Dolomiti Paganella Future Lab (DPFL)

The Future Lab is a research-intervention think-tank on the future, involving not only the main stakeholders in the resorts, but also - and for the first time ever - our whole community. The Future Lab is designed with the aim of reasoning today on how tourism can continue to represent a positive force for the good of our community in future decades and to work in order that our territory remains as attractive and stimulating for its visitors and above all for the local inhabitants.

Imagining the future is no easy task, especially if you are starting from zero, and so four tough issued were identified as the ones most likely to influence the destiny of our area :

  1. DNA of the destination - What is our destination’s DNA, and how do we uncover it?
  2. New generations - How do we involve future generations in co-creating our destination?
  3. Climate crisis - How can our destination thrive in a future shaped by climate change?
  4. Tourism in Balance - How do we create a more sustainable and balanced form of tourism?

The Future Lab is an on-going process, but with a solid methodology designed thanks to the coral work of an international team: Dolomiti Paganella Tourism Board, tsm – Trentino School of Management, Frame&Work agency (Copenaghen) andn professor Pietro Beritelli from Sant Gallen University (CH) and professor M.Pina Trunfio from Parthenope University in Naples. The project will last more than 1 year and it designed in different steps:

  • Kick off event to present the project to the community (it was organized the last 29th of October, and was a great success with almost 700 people that have joined!)
  • Workshop with local stakeholders. Different group (we are planning more than 25 different sessions) are called upon to investigate the four main themes and to propose viable solutions.
  • A specific Survey for tourist (winter and summer) designed to investigate the perception of our guest on our research pillars.
  • A specific survey for the 5000 inhabitants, to give a powerful voice to our community.
  • Specific project with Schools and Youth groups, our most important future
  • A full length Documentary to showcase the project and all the people involved.

The aspiration is to help achieve a shared long-term strategic vision for our destination so that everyone can assume an active role in the process of change rather than simply enduring it passively.


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