Why Support Community-Led Tourism When You Travel Again

For many of us, travelling had become an essential part of our lives until the pandemic. We have become accustomed to visiting unfamiliar places that pique our wanderlust and adventurous spirit, challenge us to get out of our comfort zone, and gain a better understanding of the world. 

However, the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has put a pause on our travel plans which posed a major challenge for the whole economy, especially for the tourism industry and connected conservation projects.

 How did COVID-19 affect tourism?

Tourism is a major part of the global economy and a significant contributor to the overall GDP of many countries. For example, in developing countries like Mauritius tourism represents 18.8% of the total economy and accounts for 19.1% of the total employment in the country.

However, the unprecedented COVID pandemic forced countries to implement preventive measures and close their borders. As a result, overall travel massively depleted worldwide, which has put the global tourism industry into crisis. 

The US Travel Association reported that Covid-19 caused more than $500 billion in damage to the travel industry in the past nine months in comparison with revenue from previous years. There has also been a 72% decline in the overall international tourist visits between January and October 2020 compared to the same period in 2019. This means tourists took 900 million fewer international trips last year and 81% fewer airline reservations. 

The economical crisis was particularly challenging for smaller local operators and people with lower income. The World Bank reported that small businesses, especially in developing countries, were forced to go into debt, reduce hours and wages, or simply lay off their staff in order to survive the crisis. As a result, over 88 million people were threatened by severe poverty by the end of 2020.

How did COVID-19 impact wildlife and the environment?

The lack of tourists not only had a negative impact financially but also affected the environment. Many natural locations are visited primarily for their unique biodiversity and scenic landscapes; thus, their maintenance and protection are funded by tourist activity. For example, wildlife in Africa accounts for around 80% of tourist visits, which funds the conservation of protected areas and indigenous homelands from poachers and other threats . 

In addition, even though the drop in tourism might have some benefits such as less disturbance for wildlife and for locals, it also meant fewer park rangers were present to protect the wildlife. As a result, there have been increases in illegal activities such as poaching and bushmeat hunting in some countries such as Botswana, where six black rhinos were killed in March 2020 when tourism dried up.

The People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reported that the travel restrictions also depleted the funding received for endangered animals’ protection and wildlife conservation projects.

What is community-led tourism and why has it been particularly hard hit?

Community-led tourism is a tour operation that is  entirely managed by the local community in the area being visited. Therefore, unlike traditional tour operations, community-led businesses enable the income from travellers to directly benefit the locals. This model leads to more income equality, provides more job opportunities, and can improve the overall living standard in the area. 

Community-led operations also provide the opportunity for the tourist to foster a closer connection with a local community, participate in a unique cultural experience and find beautiful off-the-beaten-path locations away from overcrowded areas, leading to lower environmental impacts.

This way of travelling is a particularly sustainable and can have several benefits for the local environment such as: 

  • Even distribution of tourists to avoid exceeding the carrying capacity of the natural habitat – thus limiting the negative impact of massive tourism such as littering and wildlife disturbances.
  • Locals are directly supported  to protect and conserve local key biodiversity areas and endangered wildlife species.

Therefore, community-led tourism has a positive impact economically, educationally, environmentally, and socially for both the tourist and the indigenous community. 

However, community-run tour operations are small businesses, which run on low margins and often have little to no savings to survive economic shocks like the pandemic. The massive declines in international travel were particularly detrimental for indigenous communities that depended on tourism for income and conservation. 

As a result, striving to generate some income in this crisis, many people were forced to engage in activities such as logging, mining, or oil extraction in and around natural areas. While we do not yet know the full impact of the pandemic on the protection of wilderness areas, it is likely that threats to biodiversity have increased as communities have lost income.

Why travel with a local operator instead of an international organization?

Although large international hotels and operators might increase employment rates, often local people are kept working at minimum wages with few opportunities for career growth. In addition, large hotels often demand international products in large quantities rather than relying on what can be provided by local markets.

On average, only 5% of tourist income actually goes to the local communities and most of the money is obtained by the shareholders of the company abroad. This is known as ‘leakage’ in the tourist economy and it is particularly detrimental for developing countries who receive all the negatives of tourism (pollution, overcrowding, increased land prices) without the benefits (improved income, economic opportunity, local development).

By contrast, when you choose local operators, every dollar that you spend has an exponential impact by staying directly in the community and creating ripple effects of increased consumption and local economic opportunity. This empowers local people, allowing them to make the decisions and providing them with opportunities to grow. This also funds local artisans, farmers, education, and healthcare.

Why prioritize community-led tourism next time you travel?

If you’re anything like us, you’re probably already dreaming of your next adventure, imagining when you will be able to explore the underwater caves in Croatia or the unique colourful birds in the dense Amazon Rainforest in Guyana. However, when travelling finally resumes, before booking your travel, consider choosing a community-led operator for some of your activities and accommodations. 

These organisations have been devastated by the pandemic and are eager to provide work to community members who want to protect local wildlife and ecosystems.  Many of these communities could not afford to stay home, but did so anyway because tourists could not arrive. And supporting these organizations doesn’t only benefit the local people; by going out of your way to find local experiences, you will certainly find an adventure that few others have experienced before.

At Friends of Wallacea, we work with indigenous communities focused on conservation as a way of generating economic growth and employment for locals while having a positive impact on the native wildlife. As a result, all of our tours are locally owned and fund the protection of threatened ecosystems. We just help you find the perfect destination and the local community takes you on the adventure of a lifetime. You can find more information about the tours available here.

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