Tourism activities that try to bring benefits to local communities have become popular over the past two decades. In Vietnam, we have seen a flourish of community based tourism (CBT) projects, though some unscrupulous operators adopt the name without embracing the values it entails. In this article, Josh Zukas highlights five exemplary organizations that are worth keeping on the radar.
1. Bloom Microventures
Sometimes the most innovative and successful projects don’t come from the tourism industry but from the development sector. Bloom Microventures isn’t a tour operator or accommodation provider, but a non-governmental organization(NGO) that, according to the website, “harnesses the power of tourism through microcredit.”
Tours with Bloom take visitors away from the cities and tourist hotspots to where they can get a taste of what rural life in Vietnam is really like through farming activities and community visits. Money earned from the tours contributes to a fund which is used to award small loans for income-generating activities. These loans are only awarded to women, who undergo a borrower assessment and, if successful, are also given assistance in basic accounting, business planning, and financial management.
Bloom Microventures isn’t a tour operator or accommodation provider, but a non-governmental organization(NGO) that, according to the website, “harnesses the power of tourism through microcredit.”
Photo credit: Bloom Microventures
Tour-goers come away impressed by the authenticity and educational insight offered during the tours, explains Ly Tran, Program Director. “More and more travelers are looking for an experience that feels more personal, more real, and more meaningful. Something that makes them feel alive and rejuvenated,” she says.
KOTO, which stands for “know one, teach one,” was one of the first social enterprises to register in Vietnam. The organization offers at-risk and disadvantaged youth vocational training in hospitality. A tourist-targeted restaurant opened to both generate income and provide a training ground for the recruits.
Tourism has helped facilitate an income for KOTO for many years. Popular cooking classes and an ability to accommodate large groups means that KOTO features on tour itineraries of some of Vietnam’s largest operators. The restaurant also remains popular with free independent travellers (FITs), with a good location across from the Temple of Literature in Hanoi and an enviable rating on TripAdvisor.
Tourism has helped facilitate an income for KOTO for many years.
Photo credit: KOTO
According to Ngo Thanh Giang, Operations Manager at KOTO, around 70% of the customers at the restaurant are tourists. They come for “friendly service, good food, and drinks, a good location,” she says.
3. O’Chau Sapa
Sapa O’Chau is an award winning social enterprise that focuses on increasing and enhancing opportunities for Sapa’s youth and ethnic minority groups. Supported by World Travel Market (WTM), recommended by Lonely Planet, and featured in The Ethical Travel Guide, Sapa O’Chau was also awarded silver in the World Responsible Tourism Awards in 2016. Their main products are centered around trekking and homestay tours, a staple activity in the oversaturated Sapa tourism market, though they are also engaged in culture and art preservation by supporting local handicrafts.
Sapa O’Chau is engaged in culture and art preservation by supporting local handicrafts.
Photo credit: Sapa O’Chau
Sapa O’Chau stands out from the cluster of other tour operators by emphasizing its community development focus. They provide reliable and fair wages to their trekking guides and homestay owners. This provides a consistent income for the family, which in turn helps keep the children in school as there is less incentive for them to stay home, help look after the farm, and feel obliged to contribute to the family income. There are also satellite activities in Sapa, such as a boarding school for students that find it difficult to get to school, a café, and a handicraft showroom.
4. Mekong Rustic
The youngest entry in our list, Mekong Rustic was established in 2014 with the aim of giving visitors an authentic Mekong Delta experience.They have a range of simple but charming rooms – including a homestay option – and an extensive list of tours taking guests to little-visited parts of the Mekong Delta, from Tram Chim National Park to more traditional bicycle tours.
Responsible tourism is a big focus of Mekong Rustic. They believe that communities deep in the countryside can and should benefit from tourism, which is why areas away from tourist hotspots are specifically sought after and promoted.
Mekong Rustic believes that communities deep in the countryside can and should benefit from tourism.
Photo credit: Mekong Rustic
“We are short of real and authentic CBT products in the Mekong Delta,” says Bobby Nguyen, Director. “I worked for NGOs such as ILO, Helvetas, SNV and WWF for some years, where I got more experience to develop this model. I decided to find some places in the Mekong Delta for building CBT with a business orientation.”
5. CBT Travel
Having worked in tourism for 20 years, Duong Binh Minh became dissatisfied with the way that both mainstream tour operators and NGOs approached CBT. He established CBT Travel in 2010, which he then registered as a social enterprise in 2012. They now have 10 CBT projects – mostly homestays – with more on the way in the coming months. The advice and support that CBT Travel offers is threefold: they facilitate small microloans to promising projects; they provide training which includes exchanges with other successful projects; and they connect the businesses with local tour operators and international DMCs.
“We have a team of experts that help source the cheapest and most eco-friendly materials for villagers to save cost when they build their homestays,” says Binh, who makes sure that the villagers build their homestays within their existing homes. “We also encourage the community to protect their customs, traditions, and traditional handicrafts, and to pass on that knowledge to tourists.”
CBT Travel facilitates small micro loans to promising projects, provides training which includes exchanges with other successful projects, and connects the businesses with local tour operators and international DMCs.
Photo credit: CBT Travel
Binh emphasizes that for CBT projects to be successful, the facilitators must commit to ongoing support. “I want to be with them for the whole journey. Not just the short-term,” he states.
This content is also available in: Vietnamese