As the global travel industry enters a new era of responsibility, how we define and measure the impact of community tourism must evolve beyond the traditional understanding of community-based tourism as a tool for community development. When done right, everyone wins – local people and businesses are empowered to thrive, travelers return home with a greater sense of connectedness, and everyone working in tourism benefits.
It’s true that tourism can be a force for good. But all too often that sentiment is, at best, hollow rhetoric. At worst, it’s exploitative of local indigenous communities and natural resources.
Increasingly, consumers are holding travel companies more accountable as they seek to spend with brands whose values mirror their own. In a survey conducted by Skift and
G Adventures, 97 percent of respondents said they would be more likely to book travel and experiences with companies that support environmental and social initiatives. 31 percent of whom would even be willing to pay more for said experiences, while another 58 percent would consider it depending on the cause.
It’s no longer enough for travel brands to simply make bold claims about purpose and sustainability. They need to prove it through action.
Quantifying the Impact of Community Tourism
The travel and tourism industry supports one in 10 jobs globally and generates 10.4 percent of world GDP, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC). However, the money spent by tourists often does not go to the locally-owned vendors and businesses within the destinations. According to the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), for every $100 USD spent on a vacation by a tourist, only around $5 actually stays in a developing-country destination’s economy. So where does the money go?
That’s the question that drove group tour operator G Adventures to create the
Ripple Score, a methodology that enables the company to track how much money is spent with locally-owned businesses in the communities they operate in.
“We look at that statistic and say, ‘Well, hang on a minute. If, on average, $95 of every $100 spent is leaving the community, where on earth are we in that?’, says Jamie Sweeting, vice president of social enterprise and responsible travel for G Adventures and president of Planeterra, a not-for-profit organization founded by G Adventures founder Bruce Poon Tip that supports community development, environmental conservation, and social initiatives in tourist destinations. “Let’s measure it,” he continued.
The Ripple Score evaluates the entire supply chain within a tourist’s journey to determine if their money is being spent with majority local-owned or foreign-owned businesses within a destination. You get a one if local, or a zero score if it’s non-local. Each of the expenditures within the tour – from accommodations to transportation and meals – are taken into account and are calculated to give a final score out of a hundred. The intention for the measuring system is to drive the tourism industry forward by quantifying the positive impact tourism can have on local communities in an open, transparent way that allows travelers to make more educated and informed decisions.
“The primary reason for doing this was to be able to be sure that we were putting our money where our mouth is, quite literally,” said Sweeting. “We believe in community tourism and that travel companies should be aware of the flow of money that goes into those communities, and that local people should see the benefit of that.”
To date, G Adventures has scored 705 of the 750 tours currently offered, with an average ripple score of 93 out of 100.
Mapping Out the Next Era of Community Tourism
The idea behind community tourism is about forging a greater sense of connectedness between all people regardless of geographical, racial, social, economic or cultural background while traveling and at home.
Tracking the flow of visitor dollars is just the beginning of a much more ambitious journey, one that aims to create a global movement of tourists, suppliers, travel agents, local people, and others who want to change the world for the better through community tourism. To make this a reality, says Lauren Michell, vice president of marketing and customer experience at G Adventures, the concept of “community tourism” needs to be redefined.
“We’re a social enterprise, and our purpose is to change people’s lives through travel” says Michell. “We’ve been pioneers of community tourism since the day we started our tours 30 years ago. Our trips are designed by building meaningful relationships with local communities and directly benefit the people and places we visit, but it doesn’t stop there. The communities we impact extend far beyond those destinations. They extend to communities of our employees, our suppliers, our agent partners, small business owners, customers, social followers and, of course, our travelers. What we’re really trying to do at
G Adventures is to bring more people into our community tourism ‘movement’ to power its potential, which ultimately benefits local and indigenous communities, women, and youth across borders… people who have traditionally been marginalized or undervalued. It’s what we call the ripple effect.”
“So by travelling with us, with our community, you’ll get a more enriching experience that gives back and helps make the world better. By changing the way we see ourselves, and our relationship with the world, we can make a difference in our own communities back home, too,” said Michell.
Empowering Local Communities Around the World
One such example emblementic of community tourism’s ripple effect is unfolding around one and a half hours outside Nairobi, Kenya.
Alongside East Africa’s major tourist and trade route residents of the town Maai Mahiu have faced extreme hardships including 80 percent unemployment rate. Here it has become common for fathers to abandon their families, often as the women have given birth to differently-abled babies, leaving the women and children of the village to fend for themselves. To empower the local community to build a brighter future for these families, G Adventures and Planeterra partnered with Cafe Ubuntu, which provides 283 job opportunities for women, including 200 ‘Maker Mums’ – women in rural areas who help make products offsite. Over 400 people benefit directly, with an additional 1,200 community members benefiting indirectly from the initiative.
The effects of the project are not only resulting in steady, meaningful work for the villagers, but empowering them to enjoy a greater quality of life, sense of self, and connectedness to the larger travel community.
“We’ve seen the community of women and the empowerment that they feel now is sort of extraordinary,” says Sweeting. “When we first went there, they’d never had travelers visiting really so they didn’t really interact. They were very, very shy and I think quite suspicious of the interaction. Now, they take it in turns in hosting the groups and the smiles and laughter and singing, and they make it a highlight of their day when the travelers come in. It’s been fabulous to see how they feel empowered, having been so marginalized. Just the confidence it’s given them is extraordinary.”
This sense of community and transformation by way of tourism is echoing out across the world. On the island of Ometepe in Nicaragua, at Puesta del Sol community homestays, interactions with international tour groups are breaking down traditional gender roles.
During a regular follow-up visit, one of the founding leaders of Puesta del Sol, Danelia, noted “Last night my husband did the washing up.”
“To put this in context, we’re talking about very traditional, rural, agricultural communities in Central America where the machismo of the male versus female role goes back thousands of years,” says Sweeting.
“Over the years Danelia has hosted dozens, if not hundreds, of G Adventures travelers, one or two at a time,” he continued. “During that time, she’s had young millennial, and now Gen Z, men staying with her. They ask to help, like they do when they’re at home. Her husband has witnessed this, and one day he decided to walk into the kitchen and help his wife with the washing up.
“Planeterra has had numerous women tell us that when the project started their husbands were upset they were busy and out of the house. Then they saw the women start to feel empowered and able to contribute to the family’s income, so they started being proud of their wives and supportive of their work. That’s the transformative power of travel.”
To help fuel their community tourism movement, G Adventures and Planeterra are currently working on 85 projects in 53 countries, with a goal of completing 100 projects by the end of 2020. Learn more about these programs here.
This content was created collaboratively with G Adventures and Skift’s branded content studio, SkiftX. In this series, we’ll be doing a deeper dive on the power of community tourism, redefined, to transform the lives of local communities, people working in tourism, including local suppliers and travel advisors, and ultimately, travelers.