Strangers in paradise

Hummingbirds dart among the tropical flowers as I lie lazily in a hammock, sipping the juice of papayas freshly picked from the…

Hummingbirds dart among the tropical flowers as I lie lazily in a hammock, sipping the juice of papayas freshly picked from the organic garden and listening to waves crash on the deserted beach. I'm in a bamboo cabin in Alandaluz, an eco-hotel on the coast of Ecuador in South America, and it's like being in paradise.

Originally set up to fund a local recycling project, Alandaluz is now the prime force behind successful community initiatives, such as developing bio-architecture (building from the locally grown, sustainable materials, bamboo and banana leaves), recycling (waste from compost toilets feeds the gardens), and education projects to revive dying skills.

This is community tourism in action, and in tourist destinations all over the developing world, from Bali to Mexico, it is an exception. Since hippies first blazed a trail to "exotic" places such as India, Nepal and Indonesia more than 30 years ago, mainstream tourism has followed, resulting in the development of luxury hotels, golf courses, theme parks, all-inclusive resorts and airports, all catering to rich Westerners.

Tourism has a huge effect on small communities and the environment, and this is set to increase. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, tourism will soon be the largest industry in the world, providing one in every nine jobs. But it is not a two-way street - the World Tourism Organisation estimates that 80 per cent of international travellers in 1996 came from just 20 countries (17 European countries plus the US, Canada and Japan). Tourism in the developing world is us visiting them.


Not only is independent travel becoming cheaper but reasonably-priced package holidays are also available from Ireland now to developing countries such as India, Mexico, Jamaica and Thailand, so more of us will be able to enjoy holidays in places with cultures very different from our own. But at what cost? Much mainstream tourism, including the backpacker brigade, has only negative effects on local communities.

"Our holiday destination is someone else's home, and the people who live there are not merely part of the scenic backdrop to our fabulous holiday experience. They matter," points out Alison Stancliffe, founder of Tourism Concern, a UK charity which campaigns for ethical tourism.

In many cases, local communities make hardly any money from the influx of Westerners. "Much of what we spend on holiday - even in the developing world - ends up back in Western countries," says Mark Mann, author of the Community Tourism Guide, a directory of ethical holidays.

"Most tourists stay in a hotel owned by a Western company. They drink imported spirits, beer and soft drinks. If they are staying in an `all-inclusive' resort they may not leave the hotel complex during their entire stay." The World Bank estimates 55 pence out of every pound spent on holiday in a developing country returns to the West.

"The raw material of the tourist industry is the flesh and blood of people and their cultures," says Cecil Rajendra, a Malaysian human rights activist. Communities all over the developing world are being forced to compete with tourist developments for the scarce resources of water, land and energy.

In Bali, farmers claim the government forced them to hand over their farms for a golf course and hotel, by turning off their irrigation. In Burma, thousands of people have been forcibly relocated to clear the way for tourist development, and slave labour was used to build tourist hotels. In the Sinai, hotels dump rubbish in the deserts, out of sight of tourists. In the Peruvian Amazon, Yagua Indians were coerced into moving closer to tourist lodges, so tourists could photograph them more conveniently. It is estimated one golf course in Thailand uses as much water as 60,000 villagers. The list goes on.

Yet it doesn't have to be like this. Eco-tourism, which protects the environment, is one solution. An impressive example of this is in Zanzibar, where the tiny resort on the island of Chumbe protects the coral reef and controls visitor numbers - and won British Airway's prestigious sustainable tourism award in 1999 (judged by a panel which includes David Bellamy). But some companies "greenwash" their holidays, by applying the loose terms "eco" and "green" to anything involving nature, warns Lara Marsh, campaigns officer with Tourism Concern.

A better solution is "community tourism", which focuses awareness on people and the environment. By creating holidays which benefit local and indigenous people, community tourism aims to strengthen communal structures, ensure money stays in the local economy and minimise damage to the environment.

Although it all sounds terribly politically correct, the tours listed in the Community Tourism Guide are far from dull. Set in the world's most beautiful natural places, from tropical beaches to deserts, from rainforests to volcanic mountains, they include activities such as drumming in Senegal, dancing in Cuba, visiting remote tribes in the Amazon, and just lying on a beach in Bali.

These tours, many of which can be pre-booked from Ireland, offer a way of getting to know local people and cultures in a natural, friendly setting - far from tourist ghettos - and experiencing a side of the country which most foreign visitors never see. Then there's that "feel good" factor - more of your money is going to the community, not some rich businessman in the capital, or a European tour operator.

Although many community tourism projects involve "back to nature" accommodation, you don't have to give up Western-style comfort - some groups target the luxury market, with prices to match. The Damaraland Camp in Namibia, for example, is a luxury lodge which offers safaris, and costs up to £200 a day.

"Community tourism" is an umbrella term which covers a variety of holiday types. "Responsible tourism" is where a commercial tour operator, such as the Southern Africa specialists, Sunvil Discovery, works closely with local people and supports local charities. "Problems in tourism often occur when numbers get bigger. Our emphasis is on using very small places, which are highly sustainable and where income is directed back to the people running them," says Chris McIntyre, managing director.

Then there are "partnership tours", run by the local community, but with an external partner, such as a commercial operator or an NGO. This type of holiday ranges from a stay in a traditional longhouse in a Borneo rainforest, with orang-utan spotting, to a visit to a traditional herbal doctor in northern Thailand.

The "purest" type of community tourism is where the resort or tour is owned and run entirely by local people. These holidays include staying in a tipi and hunting with First Nations (American Indians) in Canada and batik workshops in the Gambia (where all-inclusive holidays have recently been banned).

A key principle of community tourism is that we should visit only communities which have chosen to participate in tourism. Lara Marsh is critical of guidebooks and tour operators which do not address the ethical issues raised by tourism to undeveloped regions (which may be unable to cope with the problems tourism brings) and to countries with a record of human rights abuse, particularly where tourism does not benefit the local community.

Community tourism is about more than providing jobs and incomes. It can reduce emigration and prevent communities from disintegrating; provide an economic alternative to environmentally destructive practices, such as logging or overhunting; increase respect for indigenous culture, against the cultural colonialism of the West; and raise the community profile, making it harder for governments and businesses to ignore indigenous land rights.

Can community tourism save the developing world? No, concedes Mark Mann. "But it might help some local communities improve the quality of their lives. And it might help demonstrate a consumer demand for fairer, more sustainable holidays - demand that could eventually change the mainstream tourist industry too."

The Community Tourism Guide, by Mark Mann, published by Earthscan, £9.99 in UK

Tourism Concern: www.tourismconcern.

Alandaluz Eco Hotel: Explore, Maxwells Travel, 1 Hawkins Street, Dublin 2. Tel: 01-6795700

Sunvil Discovery, Upper Square, Old Isle- worth, Middlesex. Tel: 0044-20-85688330