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The concept of community-based tourism, in which businesses are owned and operated by local communities with revenue, in turn, targeting rural development, dates back to the 1970s. Pre-pandemic, a greater number of community enterprises were entering the tourism value chain as travelers increasingly sought culturally immersive experiences with travel dollars going directly to local communities.
But this model wasn’t as widespread nor as prioritized by mainstream tour companies. Communities lacked access to training and resources to set up their own businesses to compete, while governments and for-profit travel companies focused on selling established mainstream tours over the more complicated task of doing commerce with local communities.
Now that’s all about to change. Planeterra — a community tourism focused non-profit organization founded in 2003 by small-group tour operator G Adventures’ founder Bruce Poon Tip — is launching a first-ever Global Community Tourism Network this week.
This initiative builds on the success of the Planeterra model by scaling it up to bring in more community tourism enterprises to market, promoting them to travel companies across the tourism value chain — beyond Planeterra’s main travel partner G Adventures — and working with those travel companies to integrate community tourism experiences into their existing product lines.
In turn, this will bring in more consumer demand and more profits in the hands of communities and social enterprises.
Establishing this community enterprise market connection model and making it accessible at a global level is a game changer for the travel industry at a time when most companies are rethinking how to operate more sustainably and destinations are adopting revised sustainable management plans and considering how to “build back better” on the other side of the pandemic.
“We’re in discussions with a lot of travel companies, be they tour companies, hospitality companies, accommodation providers, even cruise lines,” said Jamie Sweeting, president of Planeterra. “We believe that community tourism could be a component of any of these kinds of experiences.”
Since the quiet initial phase in December, 212 community partners in 66 countries have joined Planeterra’s new network, which has three main pillars: training, online community and market connectivity.
Planeterra’s ambitious vision is to reach, by 2030, 50 million travelers experiencing community tourism, a cumulative $1 billion worth of income reaching communities, and 3.5 million lives improved.
Sweeting said this would mean signing on and working with thousands more community-owned businesses in the coming years to reach that goal.
“In 2019 the international travel industry was an $8.3 trillion industry — is it really asking too much to have a billion dollars worth of that 8.3 trillion to go to communities? I don’t think so,” Sweeting said.
Over $10 million was spent in communities from 2015-2019 through four of Planeterra’s travel industry partners and brands. The potential now is even bigger.
Another standout feature of this project is that it’s been traveler-funded so far, to the tune of $200,000 in donations that came in from fundraising campaigns during the pandemic.
Sweeting said it was rewarding to see travelers who had been to these kinds of enterprises wanting to give back and pay it forward to see this kind of tourism grow post pandemic — not as a hand out, but as a hand up.
“I think more than ever, there’s going to be a competition for the consumer, both by destinations competing with each other, but also travel companies,” Sweeting said. “This is a way to differentiate yourself and be able to stand out in the marketplace as a company that is committed to supporting the people and the places that you’re taking people to visit.”
The Community as Stakeholder
Much has been said of communities as stakeholders in a future responsible travel ecosystem. What the pandemic showed is their lack of broader integration in the tourism industry, which left social enterprises and their communities vulnerable and isolated at a time of crisis.
Evie Ndhlovu, Planeterra’s East and Southern Africa community and development specialist, said it was an eye-opener for the organization and its community tourism partners.
“We started to see that there were quite a lot of barriers coming between a lot of our partners and the tourism sector,” Ndhlovu said.
That’s when Planeterra built its free online learning platform with over 30 webinars, worksheets and training resources to support its existing community tourism partners during the global tourism shutdown. It’s also when Sweeting had the idea to expand the reach of Planeterra’s learning hub and model, which was then green-lighted by Planeterra’s chairman Poon Tip.
In addition to the learning hub, an online community has been set up for peer-to-peer learning, allowing communities to share experiences, stories and support one another.
With its expanded network of volunteers, also a first for Planeterra, the new partner communities that joined the quiet phase of the Global Community Tourism Network have been wide ranging in size and location, including in countries where Planeterra had no prior connection.
“We have started speaking to this partner who are excited to use our resources to train six communities around the national parks of Sierra Leone,” said Ndhlovu. “We are also having success with strategic partners who are umbrella organizations or networks within countries or regions — for example the Kenya Community Based Tourism Association, who have over 200 smaller community tourism enterprises.”
Partnering with larger groups allows for information to reach community enterprises that are lacking internet access.
Joel Callaňaupa, Planeterra’s program manager for Latin America and the Caribbean, said that around 70 new partners from his region have signed on to the new platform in the last three months, most of which are small women’s and youth associations. While these groups are still suffering from the lack of tourism due to the pandemic, they are positioning themselves for a post-pandemic surge.
Ultimately, Planeterra’s goal in creating this central platform is to empower communities long-term, not just in earning tourism revenue but in leadership.
“These are literally, hundreds and hundreds of these communities struggling with the same things, but they don’t know each other,” said Sweeting, noting that community tourism is often misconceived as limited to low to middle income countries, whereas there are marginalized and disenfranchised communities in every country, including in North America, where indigenous community-run businesses in the Navajo Nation were disproportionately impacted by Covid.
“My wish and desire is over time that they’ll want to take this on and they’ll steward it themselves,” Sweeting said.
A Quantum Shift and Competitive Opportunity for Tourism Businesses and Destinations
Pre-pandemic, while tourism grew exponentially and the world’s largest and foreign-owned travel companies and governments touted numbers, revenue was minimal in comparison for local communities in those destinations. United Nations’ reports have shown that leakage in tourism could reach up to 70 and 80 percent in some regions, such as Thailand and the Caribbean.
“I think that people are realizing that there is a bit of a quantum shift happening here as we try to build back,” Sweeting said. “Is it going to be all about more travelers coming and technically spending more money, or is it going to be about what kind of travelers and where that money is going and who is benefiting from that money?”
In a post-Covid world in which Millennial and Gen Z consumers in particular are more conscious of supporting responsible travel brands and sustainable tourism options, community tourism is a model that destination marketing organizations are increasingly eyeing as a valuable tool to stand out to them and to convey the authenticity of their destinations and pull in travelers that way.
A 2019 report from Euromonitor International examining the potential of expanding community tourism in the region also showed that tourists were willing to pay up between $50 to $300 for an add-on community tourism experience to their beach vacations.
“That’s what is different about the Planeterra model — it’s very market focused, and ridiculously customer focused to be perfectly honest,” Sweeting said. “We knew from the very outset, if this doesn’t work for the traveler, it won’t work for the community, it won’t work for the travel company and you won’t have a sustainable livelihood program.”
Recently, Panama’s government and the Panamanian Foundation for Sustainable Tourism announced a new partnership with Planeterra on a project to develop Panama’s community tourism offerings. The goal is to bring to market at least 10 community enterprises.
“In our Master Plan, we have priorities the development of tourism experiences focused on the ‘discerning traveller’, a global trend that is demanding more and more authentic experiences that benefit local communities and their surrounding environment,” Panama Tourism Minister Ivan Eskildsen said in a press release.
With more countries, tour operators and tourism companies — even all inclusive resorts, Sweeting said — now able to approach Planeterra to connect them with community enterprise experiences in their respective destinations, it’s a change that’s likely to shift tourism offerings and tour business models in the coming years.
Travel companies that were doing this pre-pandemic knew that this was a value added experience for the traveler, Sweeting said. “It doesn’t have to be all or nothing, it can be a component of your trip and I think if we just begin to do that, we’ll see this kind of tourism grow exponentially.”
A Better Kind of Tourism
Calling community tourism “a better kind of tourism,” Planeterra’s Sweeting hopes more travel businesses and destinations will prioritize it as part of their recovery plans.
For now, the organization is working hard on seeking new funding to further expand its Global Community Tourism Network, while standing ready to serve as “matchmaker” and mediator between community tourism enterprises and the private sector to help the two sides establish a business relationship so it’s win win for all.
For those companies still digging out of a financial hole, Sweeting said Planeterra stood ready to begin conversations on future integration of community tourism irrespective of current finances.
The success of Planeterra’s new Community Tourism Global Network model relies on a collaborative approach — one that will require not just community tourism enterprises to show commitment, but also governments, destinations, NGOs and businesses to create the enabling environment for these groups to thrive.
It has to potential to jumpstart the reimagined, improved post-Covid travel industry to which tourism leaders have been giving lip service since the start of this global tourism crisis.
For Ndhlovu, it’s an exciting initiative that puts communities around the world at the heart of tourism. “When communities are actively participating, the possibilities are endless.”