Sustainable tourism, eco-tourism, ethical tourism, responsible tourism and cultural tourism, among others, have become ubiquitous terms in the tourism industry. But what do they actually mean? And do they differ? In this article, Eilis Williams focuses on community-based tourism (CBT), which is the theme of out issue this month at Dulichable.

In this issue and the next we will be exploring sustainable tourism in Vietnam. In August, we will look at the subject from an environmental perspective but this month the focus is on community-based tourism, also known as CBT.

CBT in its simplest form is people opening up their home or offering a service in an authentic – often rural – community to visitors. The idea is nothing new; before hotels and guest houses are built, this is the accommodation or the ride to the next town for passing travelers.

The ‘community’ can be any group of people living in often rural, remote, or underdeveloped places. Members of these communities actively inviting tourists to share their lives and providing overnight accommodation and meals is at the heart of CBT.

CBT in its simplest form is people opening up their home or offering a service in an authentic – often rural – community to visitors.

Photo credit: Bien Nguyen

Hai Tran, tourism expert said: “Sustainable community-based tourism is about interacting with local people and minority groups in a respectful way that does not affect their traditional ways of life.”

Tourists who want to see parts of a country that are off the beaten track may be reliant on homestays and family meals with the locals. As a village or town becomes better known to visitors, or those wanting to explore the surrounding areas, the community may actively try to attract more visitors and the money they bring. This is usually dictated by the touristic value of the surrounding area.

Tourists who want to see parts of a country that are off the beaten track may be reliant on homestays and family meals with the locals.

Photo credit: Bien Nguyen

Sustainability comes into it when considering the impact that visitors inevitably have in any place they go, and wanting to protect a place from drastic change because of the tourists.

Like eating organic food and buying ethically sourced goods, sustainable travel has risen in popularity because people are more aware of and concerned about the impacts of their actions on other people and the planet.

The United Nations World Tourism Organization defines sustainable tourism as “Tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities.”

So from a community perspective, this would mean allowing the town or village to absorb tourists while the residents retain the means to carry on with daily life un-intruded by camera-wielding tourists.

Hai laments, though, that it is easy for small communities to become oversaturated with tourists; if visitor numbers are not controlled then this can lead to younger generations becoming overexposed to foreign visitors. She said: “In some places, it has become normal for children to see tourists every day.”

Many communities rely on tourism as an industry and reputable sustainable tour operators aim to keep the impact as low as possible, while simultaneously increasing opportunities to generate income and employment.

Sustainable travel has risen in popularity because people are more aware of and concerned about the impacts of their actions on other people and the planet.

Photo credit: Bien Nguyen

Operators that bring visitors to remote areas typically forge relationships with the village to offer financial support and advice on dealing with visitors. There are numerous non-government organizations (NGOs) that develop sustainable CBT projects by working with a community to attract and welcome visitors, showcase local handicrafts and cuisine and provide training on safety and hygiene. After a designated amount of time the project will be handed over to local people for management.

Hai highlights that this stage is crucial, as it is an important balancing act between the community making money from tourists and not losing their traditional way of life.

The mark of a successful CBT project is not that it makes as much money as possible in the short-term, but that the communities can absorb tourists without compromising their authenticity. The consistent stream of visitors provides financial support for the community and there is an incentive for the communities not to reject their traditional way of life.

This content is also available in: Vietnamese

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