Local Communities and sustainable Tourism

Local Communities and sustainable TourismLocal Communities and sustainable Tourism

Today, the sustainability notion has permeated every genre of development and is becoming a concern for an increasing number of policymakers and scholars.

Sustainable tourism is about striking a balance between the environmental, economic, and socio-cultural aspects of tourism development.

There was a real impetus to raise the sustainability profile at the recent UNWTO symposium on sustainable tourism in Tehran (October 14-15).  An event that brought together local as well as international decision makers, along with tourism experts and those in the private sector, to share knowledge and experience on bringing sustainability to tourism.

Sustainability concerns where it pertains to tourism stems from the nature of the industry itself, in the way it can both destroy and nurture communities. On the one hand, tourism, as a labor based industry, offers employment opportunities, especially in areas where perhaps prospects had been limited and can boost the economy, while bringing about socio-cultural and environmental regeneration. On the other hand, if tourism is unregulated, it can rob the indigenous population of all that makes their locale worth living in and worth visiting. Today tourism has devastated many ecosystems and environments.  The societal ambience of many communities has been disrupted through over-exposure to tourism. Also, it has, in many cases, made lucrative opportunities for foreign corporations owned by more developed economies, in developing or less developed areas, while leaving a minimal economic share for the locals. It is said: “Tourism is like a fire. You can cook your dinner on it; or it can burn your house down.”

 The Answer is ‘Participatory Management’

Participatory management is the practice of empowering the communities to participate in decision making. People, therefore, should be at the heart of all development strategies. They are the development goal, and should be the development tool as well.

Evidence suggests that when local communities participate in all phases of development, the chances for sustainability grows. Participation in the tourism discourse translates into community based tourism development, says Dr Mahmoud Ziaee, Associate Professor at Allameh Tabataba’i University, who has been doing research on tourism sustainability for more than a decade.

The notion of local participation has been touted a lot recently, corroborated by the UNWTO having chosen it as this year’s theme – Tourism and Community Development. It was certainly repeated enough times in the recent symposium. There is a concern however, the professor states, for participation to be superficial with lip service being paid to it, rather than it be practiced in essence, which would mean for communities taking control of every aspect of tourism development.

Participation in development is a spectrum.  At one end, people fully control the factors that impact their lives, and at the other, they are manipulated and deprived of any meaningful say in decision making. In the latter case, people are not allowed to participate in the planning process.  Even if they are, it is tokenistic.  For instance, they might be heard but they are not listened to.  They may have opinions but their ideas are not implemented. Moreover, any economic gains will trickle down to them at meager levels.    

Even if the stage is set for people to participate in the tourism development process, they need to be empowered - especially those in remote or disadvantaged areas.  They need to acquire skills, finance, and knowledge of tourism to benefit from the opportunities that tourism can bring.

It is here that the notions of empowerment, participation, and sustainable tourism entwine, Ziaee says.

A holistic approach, with opportunities for full participation and empowerment can make sustainable development more than an imaginary utopia. It is believed that local communities know their own needs better than anyone else. When they are given full power to control their lives, and at the same time, empowered enough to use the power, they can reap more economic benefits, and better manage the environment and traditions their lives and livelihoods are dependent on.