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Rural Community Tourism as Learning Experience

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I would like to thank Dr. Eduardo Costa Mielke of the State University of Rio de Janeiro for his observations and help, enormously contributing to the quality of this article.

Introduction

From the seventies onwards possibilities have been explored for tourism to be an instrumental tool for the development of rural economies, but in general terms it seems that there are more failures and unsustainable practices than success stories to be told, especially in developing countries (q147, q148, q149). This article explores some of the problem areas, trying to reconcile (academic) theory with the practice of rural tourism, while highlighting the main issues at stake.

Within the framework of postmodernist tourism the clear tendency for more individualist experiences and exclusive authenticity has widened the boundaries of the tourism panorama as well as the number of activities and experiences that can legitimately be categorized as tourism. It seems that nearly every dimension of human culture now has the potential to become a form of tourism. Although the search for the authentic in the modern sense, where time seems to have halted and the poor must remain poor and culturally stagnated, is still very much alive within postmodern holiday trends, simultaneously there are many groups of tourists with different lifestyles searching for the authentic in the sense of a reality they do not know and want to learn from. Within the same parameters, there is a rapidly growing number of tourists interested in a genuine countryside style as well as in learning skills and customs as a personality enriching set of experiences. It is about tourists who do not travel to a specific tourism highlight, but want to have personal learning experiences and this particular allocentric lifestyle may suit rural tourism development, including elements of volunteer work and home stays.

There is a marked tendency to view life as being economically driven and tourism is no exception. The producer-product-client chain dominates western (postmodern) thinking and it is therefore also applied to rural development. The use of tourism as part of a rural poverty alleviation scheme has followed this same line of thinking: the locals provide a product (lodging and/or tourist attraction) to be sold to clients: the tourists. As shown in literature on the subject, a majority of community-based tourism projects have failed so far in terms of visitor numbers, which has led some people to think that rural tourism development is falling short in poverty alleviation processes.

However, there are other ways to view tourism apart from an economic viewpoint. From a socio-psychological perspective emphasis is being laid on the role a local community plays vis-à-vis a tourism community. The meeting between tourists and their holiday destination is the focal point, which is a view that invites an examination of community-based tourism on the basis of this encounter and at the same this is one of the main concepts of the reflexive approach to tourism. Simple questions such as what each party is looking for and to what extent they share some common ground become much more relevant. Before starting any rural tourism development one must not only investigate what the possible objectives are for each party involved – including tourists – but also the socio-psychological motives that make stakeholders act.

This article describes some parts of the complicated road that local populations have to follow to develop tourism initiatives within their communities. This is a process that should lead to learning experiences and it applies to the people of local communities and tourists alike. For a local community objectives should not only relate to profits, but also to improved infrastructure, contacts with different cultures, new social networks, improved social organization and more cultural awareness, while the tourists’ learning experiences should include a broadening of their horizons, increased awareness of the environment and alternative lifestyles, among others.

Rural Tourism

Rural Tourism can be considered from the point of view of space, time and social relations. Geographers, sociologists, economists and environmental planners alike have long indicated that from a spatial viewpoint there only exists a blurred separation between what can be considered to be urban and rural, mainly because of the physical widening of suburban development, increasing population mobility and the phenomenon of a second home. Some authors define what is rural as the environment where main economic activities are related to agriculture (q67, q78). A wider view differentiates between types of rural space according to the size of the agricultural activity, such as an extensive one with high numbers of (day) labourers and large villages, medium-sized horticultural areas usually near urban centres, or those areas dominated by small family farming.

What is considered to be rural can also be viewed from the point of view of time: people living in urban areas usually have a view of rural areas as being behind in development, where time seems to have halted. It is this nostalgic view of what is considered rural that contrasts with the post-modernist and ‘fast’ life styles of the big cities. This view coincides with what rural tourism development usually tries to convey: the contrast between life in a city and in the countryside. The main traits of this view on rural areas can be summarized as follows:

  • rural in functioning, including small firms, little labour division, open countryside, contact with nature, rural heritage or “traditional” practices;

  • rural as far as scale is concerned (buildings, farms, etc.)

  • traditional in character; slow and organic growth, close family ties with fixed positions within the family (rather than by achievement), locally controlled with a long term development vision;

  • represents complex relationships between environment, economy and rural history.

In this sense the ideas of what is rural does not necessarily coincide with the actual rural development or reality of an area (q67) .

From a social perspective rural tourism refers most of all to the community’s participation, empowerment and its receiving most of the benefits (q64). What is not clear is to what extent local participants themselves should have decision making powers or whether this should be channelled through local associations or cooperatives (q100). This issue is closely related to the extent that rural tourism development is following a top-bottom pattern or the opposite. A complete involvement of everybody and everything local seems to be in line with what is called the reflexive approach to tourism, whereby the encounter between tourists (guests) and rural destination (hosts) is the pivot on which tourism hinges (q52).

Obviously the term Rural Tourism can also be viewed from the point of view of tourism and it can be sub-divided according to the type of activity carried out by tourists, based on their motivation to travel. It should be equally obvious that the distinctions made between types of rural tourism can overlap – they usually do. Mowforth (in: q29) summarized:

  • Cultural rural tourism: refers to the opportunity offered to tourists to get to know the cultural expression of the rural area visited. This may refer to tangible items (either historical, cultural or both), through the performance of cultural expressions (music or theatre for example), but also by means of the direct contact tourists have with local people and their way of living;

  • Eco-tourism: refers to tourists who travel to a destination to observe and enjoy nature and to help preserve these natural resources;

  • Adventure tourism: the characteristics of tourists’ motivations are the active participation, sometimes not without risks, in discovering and exploring rural areas; the tourist’s objective is not so much to gain knowledge (such as it is the case with Eco-tourism), but rather the exploration of themselves;

  • Specialized tourism sectors: the tourists’ motivations are directed to specific areas, such as agriculture (agro-tourism), social experiences (community-based tourism), etc.

With these subdivisions of tourism activities in mind, there is another common denominator: the main attraction of a rural destination is the destination itself and not some particular tourism highlight. It is about enjoying a type of rural environment that would be the same with or without the presence of tourists (q52); in other words, it is about an authentically rural environment and not some attraction developed for tourists. Additionally, there exists a distinction between soft and hard tourism (q59) (also referred to as the activities of either allocentric or psycho-centric tourists (q81). The first term relates to responsible medium to small-scale tourism, while the second concept has to do with the massification within tourism destinations. Rural tourism, especially when it is community-based, refers to soft tourism, which may lead to constructive and sustainable development for a population, whereas hard tourism may cause more harm than any good to any tourism environment in the long run (q59).

This distinction between two forms of tourism can also explain what the difference is between rural tourism and beach tourism: both forms of tourism take place in non-urban areas, but the latter lacks the agricultural element and in most cases it is related to hard tourism and massification. At the same time it should be clear, that both concepts – rural and beach tourism – do not necessarily exclude each other, because there is rural tourism at coastal areas.

The wide scope of the subject of rural tourism invites a narrowing down of concepts and this article will deal mainly with community-based rural tourism (RCT) for three reasons: as sustainable development, rural tourism projects can only be successful when the local community participates actively; secondly, in Europe, the USA, and increasingly on other continents, rural community tourism is seen as an important tool for protecting cultural heritage and poverty alleviation; and finally, we want to focus this article on showing the principles of the reflexive approach to tourism more clearly.

Some theoretical tools: networks and interactive approaches

The roots of rural tourism development are cultivated by many entities with either global or local interests, fertilized by government authorities or private sectors with macro or micro climates in mind, while the clear aim is to produce win-win situations. Power relations, however, are unevenly distributed by the sheer nature of the stakeholders involved. Some actors may have economic superiority, others fulfil hub-positions, there are groups with a strong cultural heritage to share and others with a lot of know-how. It also means that many different scientific disciplines are involved and the relations between the people having some stake in rural tourism development can be seen from sociological, social psychological, anthropological, economic, geographical or political points of view, just to mention a few. Stakeholders in rural development processes are connected in some way or another and the relations between entities – human actors and natural or built environments alike – are constructed on the basis of common interests and may develop into networks that in turn define the roles each entity will play (q41). This is an interactive view of rural tourism development, whereby tourists themselves are stakeholders just the same and they therefore play their role on equal terms with any of the other entities forming and cultivating the roots of rural tourism development.

Networks are thought to play an important role in regional development. Consequently, stimulating networks has become a dominant policy goal, whereby there is a shift of concern from the outcome to the development process itself (q25). This also implies that the emphasis shifts from mere economic results towards the importance of building and expanding networks, since it is on the basis of new networks that opportunities can present themselves for further development. In most cases this is a process of innovation, in which not only local communities have to be involved but outside actors must equally play their part – including potential visitors.

Rural community tourism is a services-related activity that differs from agricultural or manufacturing production and therefore the introduction of tourism into rural areas impacts much more than just having a “new product” that can be sold. The latter suggests an incremental innovation that doesn’t deviate much from current practices, while the starting up of service-related activities means a radical innovation from all points of view. These radical innovations or novelties demand drastic changes in attitude and business management (q56). Tourism is a novelty within a rural environment and it is related to different sets of networks from those a community may be used to. Thus the introduction of tourism into rural areas leads to changes on the level of networks, infrastructure and community organization among others and it should be clear, therefore, that the introduction of this novelty may take some time (q25). Any new organizational structure imposed either from above or developed from within will take a considerable amount of time and effort to become embedded within a local community.

Innovations as part of a rural tourism development strategy have to be radical in order for them to become embedded within the socio-economic activities and as such there are various areas that can be distinguished (q56). For most rural communities, organizational structures have to be renovated; different infrastructure is required with which the local people may not be acquainted, a complete innovation of marketing efforts is needed, while on a regional level new networks have to be developed (q25). Only with the support of the people from a local community can these goals be achieved and their commitment to any development programme is crucial. A bottom-up approach seems to be the only viable way of ensuring that a rural tourism development will reach the stage of embeddedness.

Rural community tourism development projects

When approaching RCT development from a socio-psychological point of view as part of the reflexive approach of tourism a clear emphasis is placed on the first planning stages that have to make sure that a sound tourism activity is being developed with all or most of the stakeholders in agreement. Starting with the basic conditions for tourism to function local communities have to follow a quite complicated road to arrive at the point of a lucrative and sustainable tourism activity as an established practice within their local way of living. Based on literature and case studies, below we present a series of requirements, conditions and suggestions that have been grouped together in response to a series of problems that RCT projects often suffer, taking into account a socio-psychological approach to the RCT phenomenon.

1. Basic conditions for a tourism project

When any rural community wants to incorporate elements of tourism into their economic activities, it must meet a series of requirements in order to be functional within tourism-related networks. In other words it is about what tourism activities should look like and what requirements there are from the point of view of the encounter between tourist and local community (reflexive approach). A rural community tourism project should be able to produce:

1.1 A general ambiance that helps tourists feel the difference from their own home environment, based on anything local that has not been developed specifically for tourists and would have been there anyway with or without the tourists’ presence; existing agricultural practices or small manufacturing may form part of this ambiance. Local people themselves must never serve as a tourism attraction (this applies specifically in the case of indigenous groups).

1.2 Services related to tourism infrastructure, such as hotels, restaurants, information centres or souvenir shops, among others – in practice these may concern a small inn with a limited number of rooms with shared bathrooms or home-stays with home-cooked food.

1.3 Services related to the sources of tourism experiences, such as tourist attractions, trails, socio-culturally interesting sites and anything else specifically developed or adapted for tourists.

When developing tourism initiatives a distinction can be applied between those elements in tourism related to the internal situation within a community and those factors related to the reality outside. From the point of view of networks, these three points (1.1 – 1.3) refer to internal networks. Points 1.4 and 1.5 refer to external networks:

1.4 The community has to be relatively easily accessible and should be located in between other possible points of interest for tourists at a reasonable half travel-day distance;

1.5 The community should be able to offer telecommunications services and therefore be able to receive reservations and payments while maintaining the corresponding administration, bookkeeping and marketing efforts.

2. The Encounter

The reflexive approach to tourism relates to the interaction between host and guest or destination and tourist. The focal point is the encounter between these two and what happens as a result. From the economic point of view, there is an exchange of goods and services for money (or voluntary labour for example), but at the same time there is the act of experiencing, which may or may not be a result of this economic transaction. Specifically in the case of RCT, tourists gain experiences from things or phenomena they did not pay for: the local culture, landscapes, gastronomy or just the smells and noises that may be quite different from what a tourist is used to. Social contacts, comparing destinations with home environments or just dreaming of a different way of living one could have are assets and part of a series of experiences tourists expect to have and get for free. Rural community tourism is about this encounter between a local community and the tourism communities and before attempting to set up such a tourism project, there must be clear insight into the nature of this encounter as well as the functioning of tourism in rural areas. Analyzing this encounter leads to three levels that can be distinguished:

  • Encounters of one human being with another: shaking hands (or whatever local etiquette dictates), a conversation (depending on the language abilities of the tourists or locals), paying for something and receiving change; waving to one another or – even more human – exchanging smiles.

  • Encounters with a culture: tourists observing houses that have different architecture, use of colours, new smells and dishes, foreign styles of dress, indigenous music or intriguing religious relics; for a local community the arrival of people from different cultures may open new horizons, too.

  • Encounters with oneself: tourists find themselves in exotic environments, whereby some tourists come to learn, others for a social challenge or tourists may be interested in mainly physical activities, while the people of a community can mirror themselves similarly and become more conscious of the cultural roots they possess.

The first type of encounter may provide the actors with social experiences, while the second deals with possible cultural, gastronomic, aesthetic or religious experiences. With the first encounter there may be a barrier owing to different languages and customs – with the second encounter this is no barrier at all; this is precisely what the tourists came for: to experience something new. The third type is related to the kind of authenticity a tourist is looking for.

The basis of RCT is this encounter, which only works when both parties enter on equal terms. In other words a provider-client relationship, which is so dominating in western economic thinking, cannot be applied; instead a much more interactive host-guest relationship should occur in which both parties are partners in tourism.

Any village or community has matters that may capture tourists’ interests and that form clues for possible experiences. These clues or impact sources (Impsources) together form the community’s story come to life through the tourists’ sensory intake leading to experiences. In this sense the encounter between local people and tourists is about the framing of expectations for experiences.

3. Expectations

Before starting out with any rural tourism design plan, expectations for this encounter have to be set according to what is reasonably realistic. Expectations in tourism, in turn, are based primarily on needs and motivations from any actor’s point of view. What can be observed extensively from literature studies and practice is that local communities tend to be motivated by (or lured into) economic opportunities, while tourists are being motivated to have socio-cultural experiences, which means that both parties of this encounter start off with completely different sets of expectations – not a promising start. Too often tourists are taken to believe that socio-cultural experiences can be bought with ready money, while local people are made to believe that by acting according to what tourists like to see, they may be able to earn a living. One often envisages a more romantic version of tourists being attracted by the engaging stories local communities want to tell and after the encounter has taken place, both part in tears for the new friends they have made and the incredible experiences they both have had. Whatever the case may be, actors in RCT development, including tourists, should have a fair start with a chance to tune in on motivations and expectations the various players may have. In the case of local communities dealing with a novelty like the introduction of tourism, this can be translated into the opening up of new external networks that give access to knowledge about tourists and what tourists may be interested in vis-à-vis what the community’s own reality has to offer.

On both sides expectations have to be set according to what can reasonably be expected, which means that existing prejudices and fixed ideas have to be readjusted. In the case of a local population, too often economic gains are presented unrealistically, fuelled even further by some fixed ideas that all tourists are rich and should be charged a lot. This phenomenon can best be observed with regards to communities of homogeneous socio-cultural composition. It is quite understandable that tourists are assumed to be rich, arriving in expensive rental cars or in luxury coaches compared to the old buses the locals have to use for their public transport. Cameras, mobile phones, Ipods or sunglasses tourists carry with them may provoke a certain air of luxury locals are not used to and may lead to certain fixed conceptions of what tourists are like. The opposite may be said of the tourists’ case, where the notion of poverty may evoke certain feelings of being superior and – even worse – the idea of cultural superiority, while obviously the opposite may well be the case. Breaking down prejudices is therefore one of the important tasks RCT has to try to accomplish.

For both parties expectations have to be broad so as to take best advantage of the novelty of the situation, although both parties should know what tourism is all about and what they can expect in tangible as well as intangible terms of the encounter between the two. For both sides of the encounter an increase in networks should be valued highly. In addition a local community should have some understanding of the extent to which a higher number of tourists may mean more direct involvement of national and local authorities in terms of improving infrastructure (electricity, roads, telecommunications, health care, schools, among others). Expectations in tourism also have to do with branding/marketing and the exercise of comparing of what a community can show to what some tourists may be interested in should take place at the very beginning of any tourism development process in rural areas. With traditional tourism project design the expectations of tourists are usually left out, denying that rural tourism is precisely about the encounter between tourists and locals while being a radical innovation for any rural community.

4. Basic conditions for the encounter

Exploring the tourism possibilities a rural area or specific community may have and the sheer nature of the encounter between people of different cultural backgrounds invites another set of observations. An important part of the tourists’ social experiences is based on communication with people from the community, which means that for RCT to be successful, tourists should speak the language of the local people or there should be a language common to both; this means that domestic tourism should be the first choice in the development of RCT projects. Local people generally tend to treat tourists as guests, but at the same time they should understand that tourists want to try to be as “un-guestlike” as possible in their effort to experience “real” (authentic) local life. This point coincides with the observation that in a guest-house or small inn, a tourist can try to feel at home, but with home-stays invariably the tourist will be a guest. In practice it means that in the case where tourists are from a rather distinct cultural background, guest-houses are recommended, while home-stays should be used with those tourists who have closer cultural links (city dwellers going to nearby rural areas, for example). Then there is the point of the extent to which tourists want to be involved in activities with or without the participation of local people. Nature hikes, bicycle trips or agricultural activities can be converted into tourist attractions and it should be clear which of these activities are especially designed for tourists and those that form part of the locals’ everyday life. It also refers to what extent tourists and locals alike open their minds for new experiences and how much this opening may be blocked partially by existing prejudices. The voluntary work option may enhance any social experience. It should be clear that the role of tourists must be taken into account from the beginning of the planning stage of any rural community tourism project.

5. The authenticity of the encounter

What is attractive for tourists first depends on their travel needs, motivations and expectations, further fuelled by their personality and referential frameworks. The view of what is rural from the city-dweller’s point of view usually invites a more nostalgic view of the pure, clean and authentic rural life people are supposed to be living. Postmodern living trends often include elements of being more tied to an era than to a particular (birth) place combined with a distinct feeling of uncertainty about the future. The nostalgic past with clear cultural and economic stagnation forms part of this image of the postmodern urban tourists’ dream some think they can find in rural areas.

In this case authenticity has to look like real, since the resulting authentic experience is what matters. Obviously, real and objective authenticity is one possibility, but there is also the type where an object or phenomenon is experienced as authentic, without having to be real. The story about the object may induce a feeling of authenticity, forming part of the relationship between the tourist, the object and its image. This observation touches the importance of the difference between tourist attractions as being staged for tourists and the daily village life, which is there even when tourists are not. This daily reality cannot be staged, otherwise it would be converted into a tourist attraction and as such, would no longer form part of the locals’ everyday life. How local people deal with their environment is one example of their authentic way of living: their relation to nature is quite different from what a tourist might be used to, since sociocultural and environmental survival factors are usually quite distinct, with a possible exception in the case of domestic tourism.

Another postmodern variant of authenticity in tourism is activity-related authenticity, which directly concerns a person’s self and his change through experiencing an object, phenomenon or activity. By going fishing, one may get a tremendous feeling of peace and quiet – an authentic experience therefore, although not necessarily related to a well-defined tourism attraction. Adventure tourism has much to do with this type of authenticity and rural areas often have plenty to offer. In this case authenticity relates completely to the tourists’ own experiences regardless of the source these experiences stem from while social experiences, for example, tend to be of lesser priority.

On the basis of the issues mentioned so far, an inventory can be made of tourism possibilities at a given rural community. Although tourism can appear in many different forms and present as many “faces” as there are tourists, the types of tourism activities that can be distinguished are eco-tourism, agro-tourism, community tourism, and so on, as spelled out earlier on. Next, activities such as day excursions, multi-day stays, voluntary work, etc. must be decided upon and they should be closely related to the authentic experience value any of these activities may represent.

6. Connecting rural communities and tourists

Viewing RCT from the point of view of the encounter between host and guest as the centre of tourism means that a series of requirements must be met to make this encounter come true. Destinations as well as tourists must be aware of each other’s existence as well as what the motivations are that may bring the two together. Therefore marketing seems to take up an important part of such an exercise, taking into account that it is about the transfer of knowledge combined with the opening up of new networks.

It is hard for a local population to see how tourists arrived at their community and too often locals simply feel that tourists come from nowhere. Suddenly there they are! The complicated machinery of the interconnected networks that got the tourist to a certain place is a reality that most local communities are usually unaware of. Locals often do not know how the tourists got there or how tourism markets function; they are also unaware of what was promised to the tourists or what to expect; neither do they realize who ‘sent’ the tourist or how many tourists they can expect to arrive. Additionally, the inconsistency of tourism, the effects of high and low season and the uncertainty of its markets are well beyond the control of local communities.

External networks should be involved therefore to help local communities connect with those people and organizations that (A) could have a direct interest in their tourism projects and (B) that could help them with designing web pages and other means of communications for marketing purposes. A well defined presence on the Internet through a web page (most likely to be sponsored by an NGO) and/or a presence on Facebook and Twitter are indispensable for the development of RCT projects. In this regard, presence on the Internet serves as a tool to further extend networks outside the region of the RCT project. Websites should have two target audiences in mind: potential travellers and travel agents. It is important to establish a balance between tourists and hosts, and the website should carry a clear message in this respect. First of all this means that the pages should not provide what tourists may like to hear (advertising and propaganda); they must reflect what the community looks like and the activities that can be carried out. It should be made clear that this is about responsible tourism and that tourists also have certain responsibilities.

A common challenge for tourism development in a single rural community is its pulling power because of the absence of a distinctive image. In order to make the most of rural tourism resources, communities could therefore approach their marketing activities from a cooperative perspective, whereby win-win agreements must be set up. This may be difficult without a third party intervention such as public sector entities, since local communities usually lack the necessary financial and technical resources. The use of NGOs, either overtly supported by national authorities or acting with support from international organizations, has proved to be one way to help solve this challenge, although this runs the risk of involving local communities in long-term dependencies and thus jeopardizing their autonomy. Local travel agencies can also be called in as they have expertise with tourists’ expectations and demands. However, responsible tourism policy as applied by these companies should be checked in the field.On the same level cooperative branding can be mentioned that helps to synchronize the pull factors across multiple rural communities or a region as a whole. A mix of complementary businesses involving chains of projects (i.e. tourism routes) may stimulate tourism cooperation and opportunities, hence the mention under 1.4 of the requirement of easy access to other sites suitable for tourism not more than a half-day’s travel away.

What are the pull factors RCT can use actively? Most tourism destinations attract visitors on the basis of certain tourism highlights, famous landmarks, impressive natural phenomena or historical monuments. However, in the case of RCT, tourists are not drawn in by ‘famous’ attractions; instead it is about normal local people with strong historical ties and ways of living. Therefore there should be a clear distinction between those rural areas offering a clear tourism attraction that form part of the more traditional ways of tourism, and those areas that show an endogenous tourism based on primary resources and not artificial ones, with a strong anthropological connotation of meeting the needs of sharing culture and lifestyles. A provider-client relationship should be avoided therefore in favour of host-guest interactions, which should become clear on the websites concerned.

Tourists may get in touch with rural community tourism initiatives directly through the Internet or by electronic mail. In these cases the tourism project can be found simply by surfing the web or from the recommendations of people who have been there. More common, however, is the practice of contacting a travel agent, either inbound in the destination country or outbound in the tourist’s home country. Supply chains as sets of networks help tourists find what they are looking for. Travel agents may fulfil a hub function and therefore it is of some importance that they are involved at some stage in the rural community tourism development process, mostly for their knowledge of what certain groups of tourists may like or dislike. As intermediaries, the role of travel agents is a delicate one, since they have to make clear to potential tourists that a visit to a rural community includes certain responsibilities and these agents themselves should know about local situations.

An important Internet application consists of Social Information Seeking (SIS). In recent years there has been a fast growing number of sites where people can ask questions and they are answered by groups of people or communities. One of the early examples is the site ‘Answerbag’ and since then more have sprung up – Yahoo!Answer appears to be one of the most popular.

The basic idea is quite similar to the Wiki concept, of which Wikipedia is the most famous. Generally, a site consists of 4 parts: a mechanism whereby people can submit questions, a venue for submitting answers, the community built around this information exchange, and finally answers are indexed for search engines, thus enabling web users to find answers given to previously asked questions in response to new queries. This means that these sites can fulfil a second role at the same time as database provider, based on previous answers, which in turn are provided by the people of a community or by any outsider. This can be on global level or limited to specific groups of people with a common interest (communities). The term community is used here in the broadest sense of the word and those sites are called cQA sites. These kinds of sites began to appear on the Internet in 2003 and they have been a growing phenomenon ever since. Apart from this, there was already a tendency for people to ask for information via the Internet, rather than trying to find it themselves. An ever increasing number of people seem to think “why bother seeking an answer when the Internet can connect me with the people who have it?” The habit of asking questions on forums and similar communication platforms is also expanding rapidly.

The possibilities for those interested in tourism are enormous and cQA sites may provide a necessary link between (pre-) tourists and the people from a destination or local community. Due to the fast-growing influences of the various Internet applications that provide people with information and the tools for acquiring specific data such as Search Engine Optimization (SEO) techniques, potential tourists can find a lot more information directly on the Internet and the additional cQA sites carry the concepts even further along a new route of social information exchange, controlled jointly by a community and its visitors.

7. New networks

Once a local population has decided on a project for receiving visitors within their community, an opening is automatically created to connect with outside actors, either being potential visitors directly or other actors involved in some way or another with visitor flows, transport or marketing: the so-called forward linkages. From a development point of view, making an inventory of existing contacts has to be combined with the inventory of external networks the community should have access to.

A major emphasis on rural development processes themselves will lead to the need for taking stock of existing networks as well as the technical and experience knowledge that is available. The questions of who has the knowledge and who has the skills must be the foundation for the inception of a development process. These inventories of knowledge and of the internal as well as external networks not only form the basis of the process design, they also indicate the strengths and weaknesses of internal organization or functioning and as such give an indication of the necessary training and education that should be internalized within the development process. Additionally, the introduction of a novelty like RCT means that new knowledge has to enter the community. Capacity building is one of the major objectives of any development process, but there must also be an exchange of technical as well as experience knowledge.

There are three types to be distinguished:

A. Exchange of existing knowledge. Networks reaching outside a community may enhance contacts with other villages or people from the region as a basis of information and opinion exchange; in other words, these networks build on locally existing knowledge (also called horizontal network integration).

B. New input of knowledge

B1. From governmental authorities, universities or NGOs

B2. From tourism contacts (travel organizations, etc.)

A different case has to do with contacts with NGOs or government agencies, since these networks are about a flow of knowledge towards the community and may contain new concepts, ideas, information or techniques (a vertical flow, therefore). When applying to a process that stresses a bottom-upward approach, new impulses from outside sources are of great importance, but networks have to be established first to let this happen.

C. New initiatives:

C1. Training, instruction and education

C2. Marketing, Internet design, accounting, etc.

A third form is that of forward linkages and it concerns contacts with possible buyers, not only of agricultural products and manufactured goods, but also of the (tourism) services provided. In the latter case this may refer to the tourism services in the community itself and networks concerning travel agents among others.

Once the motivations and nature of a particular rural tourism project have been established among the various actors and a start has been made on acquiring additional knowledge of the possibilities rural tourism may present, the next stage is to define what new elements have to be developed within a community to adapt to some kind of tourism activity. Will it be just an attraction for day-visitors, for multiple-day stays or will there only be indirect participation through the supply of guide services, agricultural products, handicrafts, and so on.

8. Requirements for the RCT development process

On the basis of the theoretical tools introduced, a description can be given of the process of rural community tourism development, keeping in mind that a bottom-up approach is recommended and that these projects are being viewed as radical innovations within the rural environment. Hence, the underlying arguments for a successful implementation of community-based tourism projects in rural areas are based on five assumptions that are interconnected. Once having established that a rural community or area can be of interest to tourists and the locals have shown interest in such an undertaking, all actors must have this awareness for a local rural community project to prosper:

2.1. RCT projects must be developed with the full participation of the local communities involved and should depend on their initiatives; for any initiative to develop into an embedded practice within a community it is this same community that should initiate this development process.

2.2. RCT projects must lead to socio-economically and environmentally improved living conditions for the local community; although the economic effects of tourism in rural areas have been emphasized extensively under the influence of pro-poor movements, benefits should also include improved living and working conditions as well as infrastructure and cultural awareness, among others.

2.3. RCT projects must lead to an increased number of internal and external networks that stimulate creativity and new knowledge in the community. Since the introduction of tourism is a radical innovation, a new flow of knowledge has to enter the community. Training as well as capacity-building form fundamental elements to help local people cope with new tasks, services and technologies so that they are not continuously dependent on outside knowledge, which could jeopardize their autonomy.

2.4. RCT projects must be complementary to any other already existing economic activity in the community and must build initially on the available organizational infrastructure; this assumption is first of all a “safety-valve” to help ensure that tourism evolves into an embedded practice. Secondly, it means that the innovation of introducing RCT may be radical, but at the same time that its influence on a local population and the way the people are organized does not change social structures radically.

2.5. RCT projects must produce an organizational structure that appoints, among others, those community members that are directly involved with the tourists and the tourism infrastructure to be developed; tourism networks depend very much on personal involvement and service, as part of the hospitality offered and to help create the image the community will have towards its visitors. Tourism in general depends largely on personal contacts and networks and therefore any tourism identity cannot afford to have a different person attending network contacts each time. Working in tourism, as in any other activity, needs special skills and not everybody has to be involved directly with tourists. Participation may also involve associated products, such as food cultivation or handicrafts, hence the importance of governance in appointing roles to play and tasks to fulfil.

 

9. Governance

So far an outline has been given on the basis of a reflexive approach to tourism of all pre-requisites that help identify the feasibility and viability of potential tourism projects in rural areas initiated by local communities themselves. The majority of actions described so far have dealt with the preliminary stage and it has been argued that these actions are of fundamental importance for a RCT project to be successful. However, it seems that a majority of RCT projects carried out did not take this road and rather followed the more traditional theoretical discourse of the provider-product-client model.

Literature and case studies on the topic of RCT show that a failure of marketing and a lack of governance are the major stumbling blocks for rural tourism development to prosper, and this view is supported by many observations of RCT in practice. Both issues are part of the radical innovations that have to take place within a community to successfully develop tourism initiatives. It is precisely the last mentioned element (see 2.5) of internal organization and the managing of external networks that seem to cause problems, and more specifically, the lack of organization is one of the main themes within communities; this is the major problem that women in rural communities have to face.

Governance, management and leadership relate to the internal organization of a community and to the way decisions are being made. Community organization is about a process that relates to responsibilities and commitments; if this were not the case there would be no political sustainability, which in turn may affect the autonomy of a community. A dependency on external organizations concerning knowledge transfer may develop, inducing a lack of self-confidence and lack of decision-making power, thus again undermining autonomy. Additionally, in a given community it may have taken decades for decision making processes to reach their state of embeddedness, but tourism has the power to turn around these processes drastically in the short term and the challenge therefore is to ensure effective decision making within a local population’s reality, maintaining the community’s autonomy and creating efficient organizational structures.

The organization within a community will largely define to what extent the various networks will be established and how they will function. Acting as a community requires many levels of internal organization and this usually involves the formation of some kind of association, cooperative or foundation – these three being the legal frameworks mostly accepted by government authorities and NGOs. On one hand, these forms of organization may help the strengthening and building of networks, but on the other hand one has to realize that they are western legal structures that do not always coincide with local traditions and may mean the exclusion of parts of a population.

10. Sustainability issues

When the first moves are made to look into the possibilities of the introduction of a tourism project together with a local community, sustainability development issues must be high on the agenda. Tourism exerts environmental pressures and impact studies must show to what extent a village or area can support them. Apart from the ecological issues, it has to be seen that the story a community has to tell does not change under foreign influences. The community’s story must be observed by external entities, such as tourism authorities or consultants, and balanced against certain expectations tourists may possibly have as part of the process to test the feasibility of a RCT project. This testing includes the vulnerability of cultural heritage, traditions and customs and how much a community or its members want to expose these to outsiders.

RCT projects have to be seen as an expression of sustainable development itself, although local communities may encounter severe problems mitigating the harmful effects increased numbers of visitors may have on their direct environment. Waste management is one example, since most communities have no other means available other than the rubbish dump just outside the village. Although recycling is a necessary practice, in remote rural areas specifically this is simply not viable. Along similar lines there are many restrictions – often of an economic nature – that stop a local rural community from meeting the sustainability standards set internationally. Local communities may feel they are living in harmony with their environment, but broader ecological issues concerning a region as a whole may demand additional measures be taken, which may be considered by local people as external interference. Tourism may not be a part of these sustainability issues, but the opening up of external networks and the resulting connection of a community to a complete region can lead to consequences at all levels. Additionally in most communities local people care about their natural environment as part of their survival and therefore they are well aware of the solidarity this involves with future generations, but this solidarity might be changed by the presence of tourists, especially when there are too many of them. A local population may give up part of this solidarity under the pressure of tourism, the prospects of financial gains or when pushed by government authorities or investment companies.

Sustainable tourism development in rural areas has captured the interest of government authorities and travel organization at large, but this has not always been translated into practice. The public sectors’ more traditional views invite shorter-term thinking and often seem to deny some of the basics concerning rural community tourism: a local community meeting the tourism community in an encounter where no exchange of money is involved. Similarly the private sectors coincide with the economic approach and the logic of linking rural tourism with sustainable development may contain a large element of wishful thinking, since tourism in general has never distinguished itself as being either sustainable or taking a long-term view of development. Meanwhile one has to realize that the lack of the State’s effective capacity to guarantee the complete protection of eco-systems and the need for productive alternatives in nature buffer zones have created an opportunity for sustainable tourism developed by local people to find a solution to the eternal conflict between conservation and development. RCT, therefore, may well turn into a sustainability tool that can serve the purposes of various stakeholders on national and regional levels.

Final Remarks

Rural Community Tourism development projects have mainly focused on economic impact, but little attention has been paid so far to view these types of development processes from the tourism point of view: the role of tourists, the relation between tourists and community and the windows that are opened for locals and tourists alike. The lack of success of a majority of RCT projects, in terms of low numbers of visitors, particularly in developing countries, seems to be related to poor governance and marketing efforts. Practice has shown that a RCT project may initially break even in economic terms at most and therefore RCT must be developed for reasons other than economic ones. Some more gains in addition to existing income is always a possibility, but there is the point of expanding networks opening the door for innovation as well as creativity and with it the opening of opportunities for new developments with the additional benefit that locals become more aware of their culture and their way of living; tourism therefore is a way of opening horizons not only for tourists, but also for local rural people who can come in contact with a world foreign to their own.

However, the bottlenecks encountered in the form of failing governance and marketing can be taken as symptoms of a deeper rooted problem. In the case of marketing, or to be more precise the lack of it, seems to be directly related to the absence of preliminary studies of what could be presented to tourists, what story a community has to tell and the bridge between the two. The lack of these insights may lead to the problem of how to decide what is best for a community and how to set up corresponding organizational structures. The common denominator of these issues seems to be the reigning economic attitude of external actors towards tourists: “They must be taken advantage of.” This can lead to a development process whereby economic factors dominate and there is no insight into the mechanisms that make tourism work and prosper. Income issues are important as long as they are treated on the basis of responsible tourism principles, while the specific tasks laid down in a well-worked out management plan based on a previously agreed tourism infrastructure are crucial for proper governance. Additionally in practice it seems that public and private sector initiatives should better understand a community’s possibilities and strengths, since the population’s cultural and natural heritage, the exact thing the tourists are coming for, are at stake.

Public and private sectors have been of vital importance to RTC and without them, RCT development processes are hard to envisage. The same holds true for training programmes, which are important elements in preparing communities for the tasks ahead of them. There is no room for a top-bottom approach as RCT consists of the voluntary encounter by both locals and tourists and this encounter does not include any monetary transaction. The traditional view of tourism as the relation between providers and clients cannot be fully applied to the RCT reality. Viewing tourists as clients worth nothing more than their money and hosts as providers who try to gain as much as possible is a view that unfortunately still rules in many handbooks or academic discourse on the subject of rural community development. One has to realize that with most RTC environments tourists pay for lodging and food combined with some services such as guiding or entrance fees to specific tourism attractions, but tourists do not pay for what they have come for: experiencing community life, local culture or rural landscapes, generating experiences that are priceless.

It is about the postmodern tourists from city areas that want to have an encounter with rural people and this tourist has to understand that he has no status within that community other than being a visitor. For any RCT project it is important that rural people maintain the type of hospitality they are used to and that they are not forced to change this for a pattern of a servant-client relation (as often dictated by tourism hospitality manuals), while tourists should clearly understand that they are not going to be served and they must behave as visitors in a foreign environment. The logic of money does not and should not apply, in order to preserve what makes the encounter between the two parties a unique one. However, travel organizations in general still see RCT projects as attractions to be sold to tourists and they want to make sure that the locals provide “complete customer satisfaction” – whatever that may be within a rural context.

Travel organizations, NGOs in general or the public sectors combining economic thinking and socio-psychological perspectives of the encounter between tourists and locals is not just a tendency for the future; it should be today’s reality.

The view that a socio-psychological approach determines the essence of RCT instead of sheer economic reasoning may be contested by many and effectively this has yet to be proven, nevertheless first indications from the field point clearly to this direction. The main aim of this article is to invite the academic world to direct its interests toward these aspects of rural community tourism and the roles tourists play. The views expressed in this article are also directed to those working in tourism to start looking at the activity from a different perspective understanding that profit is not the only goal and RCT is a good example to show that point. Finally, the learning experiences local communities and tourists may acquire are not limited to just these two, but apply similarly to the academic community, travel organizations and public sectors alike.

I would like to thank Dr. Eduardo Costa Mielke of the State University of Rio de Janeiro for his observations and help, enormously contributing to the quality of this article.

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2 Responses to “Rural Community Tourism as Learning Experience”

  1. Thank you Marinus for another interesting article; from what I could understand quickly the issues mentioned in the article are taken from practice; they are exactly those (amongst others, of course) that we are trying to tackle with our communities. So far, our model of a for-profit tour operator specialized in sustainable community-based tourism that has a relationship based on trust with the communities it works with. Fair prices, fair working relationship, shared management decisions (final decision is in the hands of the community really, we can only advise) and good marketing which results in improved arrival numbers. It’s true that a CBT project doesn’t necessarily need to result in huge economic success, too: there are so many more advanteges perceived by both communities as well as travelers.
    Thanks for this elaborate analysis. I hope t helps to continue improving the world of community tourism.
    Best regards,
    Guido van Es
    Founder RESPONS

  2. Marinus,

    This in depth approach is welcome and valuable. In our ever changing society, it is very important to reflect current needs. We at Go Mo Places applaud you for your dedication and tireless effort in creating and maintaining a more cohesive tourism environment. Thanks for sharing!

    Miriam Olin, CEO
    Go Mo Places

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