There is another way...
Lounging by the pool, sipping on the attentively served imported beer, security fences muting the sound of the riffraff, the man turned to his wife: “This is fantastic, shame about all the hassle outside.”
His wife nodded in agreement, “why don’t they just get a job?” A classic scene, witnessed in a rapidly increasing number of ‘developing countries’; that is, those countries you never thought about until the travel agent tells you that yes, anyone can now afford five-star luxury.
But before the travel agent gets the deposit, remember this. The argument for a long time has been that income from a blossoming tourist market has not filtered down to the local communities.
Internationally-owned hotels and tour companies help holiday money leaving the country as quickly as it comes in.
Government corruption has also been blamed, with expensive national park fees lining a pyramid of government officials’ pockets.
The locals’ cut often comes from the scrambled competition to sell bracelets, wood carvings, and other low value souvenirs to tourists complaining of being hassled.
The foreigner-dictated system encourages envy. Look at all these foreigners enjoying themselves, spending money in our town, and we still can’t afford to send our children to school. Imagine the feeling of inadequacy when your wooden shack sits in the 2 p.m. shadow of a security fence. Or when your wooden shack is replaced by sun-loungers and pool parties.
But, as Kyrgyzstan and Katete demonstrate, there is another way.
Community Based Tourism: Kyrgyzstan
Landlocked between China and other ex-Soviet nations most people have never heard of, Kyrgyz people are traditionally semi-nomadic shepherds. It’s a place of breathtaking silence, eternally vivid mountain vistas, and inescapable anonymity.
In Kyrgyzstan you can ride a horse for a week and see only a handful of families. Which is its unique attraction.
With start-up support from a Swiss NGO, Community Based Tourism links a network of isolated nomadic shepherds across the entire country.
Since its inception in 2000, there are now 18 active community-based tourism groups throughout the whole country.
Their speciality is guided horse trips that cost around €30-€50 all inclusive per day. Each day often involving the slow climb of a mountain pass before a gallop downhill to the welcoming waves of a family.
Encouraged to immerse myself in family life, I spent evenings separating sheep, tending to horses, drinking fermented milk and arguing that being unmarried at 27 was not a bad thing.
After a week I could speak basic Kyrgyz, ride a horse without one hand glued to the saddle, and enjoyed every possible variation of potato and meat stew.
The majority of the money goes directly to the families whose services are being utilised. For example, on a seven-day horse trip a tourist’s money will go to: each of the seven host families who provide a bed in their traditional yurt and home-cooked food; the family who breeds and trains the horses; the family of the guide; the family of the driver who returns tourists to base point.
Most importantly the people supported are those in most need of additional income. Their lifestyle ensures a self-sufficient rudimentary survival from the land and animals, but hard currency is required for anything more like schooling and healthcare.
“Tourists are very good for my children,” Muksat told me. “My children like playing with you and also learning English.”
Tikondane is a community centre run for and by the people of Katete in eastern Zambia, an area generally considered to be the country’s poorest.
Onsite is a prospering community school, adult education programmes, a restaurant and a guesthouse.
The guesthouse provides employment and opportunities to develop skills for local people who have traditionally lived as subsistence farmers.
I woke to the sound of 600 excited children arriving at school chewing on sticks of sugarcane, and my day involved spending time with almost 100 people who passed through the centre to receive HIV counselling, business development training, or a cup of tea.
There was no doubt that for two days I became a part of this community. Each night and each meal I had was money that went towards supporting their project.
Tikondane supports people from a number of villages around their central base. Another of their services is to offer tours to these villages.
With a gang of children following my footsteps, I drank locally distilled maize spirit, rode in an ox-cart, watched a village netball competition and shook enough hands to initiate cramp in my forearm.
“Before, Europeans couldn’t come to the villages and there wasn’t the chance to exchange ideas,” Benson told me.
“At first the children were scared of the Europeans and would run away, but now they grab their hand and walk with them.”
Benson’s village is one of the few remaining that practise the ‘ghost dance’, a traditional ceremony that has been placed on the Unesco World Heritage list. Tourists are now able to witness this inimitable spectacle with their fees supporting the development of the village.
Boer holes have been built and teachers funded through the income generated by sharing the village’s traditions.
What’s in it for you?
Let’s think brutally and selfishly, because we know we do. Supporting the local economy is a wonderful idea, but after working so hard to earn the holiday, personal enjoyment is the nunber one priority.
But the foreigner-dictated system disadvantages the tourist. A changing and undoubtedly unfair environment is unlikely to translate into affability towards tourists. How many times have you heard the ‘locals-were-so-unfriendly-and-just-wanted-our-money’ phrase being uttered? When communities don’t benefit from tourism, the tourist becomes either a person to pester for money, or a person to abuse for not sharing money.
Often, by the time you get back to work on Monday morning, you’ve forgotten the expensive hotel you spent two weeks in.
As long as tourists are willing to be patient and understand they are seeing culture with all its intrigue and pitfalls, and not a standardised international service with its comfort and monotony, community tourism is able to provide genuinely real experiences.
They’re the sort of experiences most likely to settle into your top five travel stories and be remembered 20 years from now.
Communities may be economically poor, but they are powerfully rich in their hospitality. The tourist is paying to see what the country is best at: friendships, sharing and communication – not waiters, cocktails, and marble bath tubs.
By supporting these type of organisations tourists can witness the difference their money is making, whether that is a nomadic family buying a second yurt or a hundred children being able to attend school. By investing our holiday money in communities we will all benefit in the future.
And when the multinational companies consequently go bust, it would be a victory for development and equality, a victory for holiday diversity over standard monotony.