Dear EarthTalk: What is “community based tourism” and how does it purport to safeguard pristine places?
-- Erin O’Neill, Tukwila, WA

Community based tourism refers to situations in which local people—usually those that are poor or economically marginalized in very rural parts of the world—open up their homes and communities to visitors seeking sustainably achieved cultural, educational or recreational travel experiences.

Under a community-based tourism arrangement, unique benefits accrue to both the traveler and the hosts: Travelers usually accustomed to chain hotels and beachfront resorts discover local habitats and wildlife and learn about traditional cultures and the economic realities of life in developing countries. And the host communities are able to generate lucrative revenues that can replace income previously earned from destructive resource extraction operations or other unsustainable forms of economic support.

Locals earn income as land managers, entrepreneurs or food and service providers—and at least part of the tourist income is set aside for projects which provide benefits to the community as a whole. And just as important, says, which promotes community based tourism in a partnership with Conservation International, the communities become “aware of the commercial and social value placed on their natural and cultural heritage through tourism,” thus fostering a commitment to resource conservation.

Travelers indulging in a community based tourism trip might follow a local guide deep into his tribe’s forest to spot otherworldly wildlife, eat exotic regional delicacies around rough-hewn tables, watch and even take part in celebrations of local culture, and sleep on straw mats at the homes of local families.

In many cases, local communities partner with private companies and nonprofits that provide money, marketing, clients, tourist accommodations and expertise for opening up lands to visitors. In 1997, eco-travel operator Rainforest Expeditions wanted international visitors to learn about threats to the rainforest. Natives in Peru’s Esé-eja community of Infierno wanted to generate income without destroying their rainforest home, central to their subsistence lifestyle. So the two joined forces and the resulting Posada Amazonas lodge to this day offers visitors an exotic way to learn about rainforest ecology directly from English-speaking Esé-eja staff, who in-turn earn a living sharing their local knowledge and traditions.

Another example is the partnerships that the nonprofit Projeto Bagagem (Project Baggage) has forged with several Brazilian communities to bring in tourist dollars to support sustainable choices. A third of the cost of every Projeto Bagagem trip goes to the villagers and another third to a local nonprofit. Last year the group won a Seed Award from the United Nations and the non-profit World Conservation Union for its efforts to translate “the ideals of sustainable development into action on the ground.”

Extreme poverty coupled with abundant natural resources makes the Amazon basin an ideal place for such programs to thrive, but community based tourism can be experienced anywhere. To find qualifying, pre-vetted trips that contribute to local economies all over the world, visit

CONTACTS:,; Rainforest Expeditions,; Projeto Bagagem,

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