This is an extensive post advising how a rural community can undertake to develop a community ecotourism project from scratch, without any funding. I address issues such as the motivation of the local community, the pre-planning of a project, the development and marketing of a community ecotourism project and how Google Adsense can be used as a means towards sustainable development. The guidelines are transferable to almost any country worldwide - it needn’t be South America of course. All that is necessary is the will of a local community.
About my community ecotourism experience & position to advise
As a Geographer (Masters from Edinburgh University) I’ve spent many years learning about conservation issues and sustainable development. My University dissertation, “An Evaluation of Rural Ecotourism Initiatives in Toledo District, Southern Belize” can be found here. Since 2003 I have worked with the Piedra Blanca Community Ecotourism Project (Ecuador) as an ecotourism consultant.
The Imaginary Scenario
A small, poor, rural community (that could be anywhere in the world) currently makes a living mainly from farming, and occasional logging of nearby forests. Understanding that this is not a sustainable form of existence, a few members of the community understand that attracting tourists to the beautiful local area could be a highly profitable new industry for the local community. With no funding whatsoever, how can this community develop a sustainable, community run ecotourism project?
Understanding Ecotourism & Sustainable Tourism
I’ve already written quite extensively on this subject. See my definition of ecotourism for an understanding of what ecotourism is, in addition to my previous post on why ecotourism is important. Essentially, ecotourism is a type of nature based tourism that is beneficial to both the local environment and the local population.
The Project Goal
To construct a community owned ecolodge that is popular with travellers. Income from tourism is shared out amongst the entire community, though obviously a few local people will benefit to a greater extent than some others - namely those who work managing the project, as guides, as providers of food to tourists or in some other tourism related roles. In time, the community as a whole, who will benefit greatly from local tourism, will understand the importance of preserving their natural environment, and stopping the logging practices they had previously been undertaken - the community will understand that if they destroy their beautiful natural environment, the tourists won’t visit in the future, and as a result they will be less well off economically. Through tourism, the local population will have an incentive towards conservation - the goal is sustainable, community ecotourism.
How is this goal achievable with no prior tourism infrastructure, and no funding?
The Pre-Planning Stage
A few members of the local community need to be enthusiastic about the idea of attracting tourists to the region, and subsequently benefiting economically from this potential new industry. The only pre-requisite for this blueprint for the development of a community ecotourism project that I am trying to outline is that at least one member of the local population is initially open to the idea of tourism (plus of course there must be some kind of local tourism attractions - often the natural landscape is the best attraction. Other attractions can be created later.)
Assuming that a few members of the local community are open to the idea of developing local tourism, their task is the convince the community as a whole that it is a good idea to develop a community run tourism project. Generally speaking, relatively poor, rural communities respond best to the concept that they will make money from tourism. This concept - of economic benefits - is crucial to drumming up enthusiasm amongst the community.
How do you convince a (often poorly educated) community that attracting tourists is a good idea? Arrange community meetings and visit individuals to explain that everyone will benefit from the proposed plan for local ecotourism. Poor people respond well to the idea of them making more money from something.
This stage of convincing the local population - and making them understand the goals, and potential results, of the proposed community ecotourism project - is the ideal point at which it is best to try to recruit a Western volunteer (ideally one with a background in either tourism, ecotourism, or sustainable development). Extra push can be added to the project, and locals can be convinced that it’s a good idea to develop tourism, is there if a foreign person telling them that they live in a beautiful place, and tourists would love to visit if there was an ecotourism project established. At this pre-plannig stage, a foreign volunteer worker is very useful, but by no means necessary. Volunteers can be recruited for free - adverts can be placed on websites such as Gumtree and Craigslist, in addition to dozens of other volunteer, or country specific, websites.
Once the community has been convinced that a community ecotourism project will be beneficial for them, the project can be further developed.
Community Ecotourism Project Development
In this scenario I am imagining that no funding is available whatsoever. If some funding can be found, this is an added bonus. The aquisition of funding is often something that a “Western” volunteer can assist with. Funding can be found through a variety of sources, including: grant making trusts (in the UK for example, the “Directory of Grant Making Trusts” book lists well over a thousand trust funds set up for charitable purposes, some of whom may well be willing to donate to the proposed sustainable project -I’m sure other countries have similar directories, and trust funds who can be approached); local Non Governmental Organisations (NGO’s) involved with local sustainable development can be approached; and the local government itself can be approached. Obtaining funding will speed up the development of the project, but it’s not completely necessary, and the idea of this article is to advise how a project can be developed without any funding, so I will continue on the assumption that there are no funds at all.
In the ideal scenario, the community is highly motivated with regards to the project, and many families can be convinced to contribute voluntarily towards the construction of a cabana, or small ecolodge, where future tourists will stay when visiting (if not, see later). Someone will invariably have a chainsaw, and the sacrifice of a few trees can be made for the greater good of the environment in the long term. Families can be encouraged to each donate some wood / planks, in addition to local palms, or the local equivalent to build a small cabana / ecolodge of local design, made from local materials. Old matresses and sheets can be donated towards the project, local carpenters can help to construct both the ecolodge and the beds and other furniture. At this stage electricity is not necessary for the ecolodge - a few donated kerosense lamps will suffice. A highly motivated, and enthusiastic community can be convinced to work voluntarily, as a group, for maybe one day a week, and quickly accommodation for tourists can be constructed. This is the ideal scenario.
However, the community may not be forthcoming in it’s donations to the project or willingness to work voluntarily to construct the ecolodge.
I will continue on the assumption that voluntary local contributions towards the construction of an ecolodge have not been achievable.
Tourists can still be attracted - even without a dedicated ecolodge, or accommodation option for them. Assuming that their are already some kinds of local tourist attractions (eg. primary rainforest & associated birdwatching or wildlife viewing opportunities; beautiful natural landscapes such as mountains, caves, waterfalls etc; local markets; ancient artefacts, ruins, inscriptions etc.; traditional communities; friendly local people; beaches; the list could go on and on) - how can tourists be attracted if there is no “hotel”?
Simple. Two concepts - camping, and family homestays.
It doesn’t cost anything to designate a camping zone (or likewise, a hammock zone). But where will tourists eat? There’s no restaurant, but this is not a problem - tourists can eat in the homes of local families, who of course will be paid for feeding the tourists. A lot of foreign tourists love this type of tourism whereby you really do interact with the local population. Likewise, in addition to camping, tourists can be offered the option of sleeping in a room in the house of a local family. The key points here are that the local family will need to want to accommodate the visitor (as they will be paid), and the community has to be convinced that a Western tourist would want to stay in one of their rather primitive houses. The community has to be convinced that this is a perfectly feasible means of accommodating Western tourists, but is often a real stumbling block. “Who on Earth would want to visit our community and stay in a basic place like my house?” almost all of the local population will think. Although this type of accommodation is not going to attract any local or domestic tourists, adventurous Western backpackers will love it - and the best person to persuade the local people that this type of preliminary project will actually work, is a Western volunteer (ideally one is working with the community at this stage of the development of the project, as mentioned previously).
Up to this point, we have an enthusiastic community that wants to attract tourists, and we have established that visitors will either be camping, or staying with a local family (and eating their food there). In addition, someone local will need to show visitors around the local area - and they will almost certainly be lots of local people willing to do this as they’re going to be paid for doing it (and invariably they’ll make a lot more money in a day being a local tourist guide compared to what they normally do, which is probably farming or fishing).
At this point, the community has established all the necessary local infrastructure of a basic community run ecotourism project - without the need for any funding at all. Visitors will either camp, or stay with a local family. The visitor will eat their food with a local family. Local guides will show tourists around the local area. As many different families as possible are involved in the tourism industry - local guides and families accommodating or feeding tourists operate on a rotational system, whereby various families take turns in attending to the tourists. Everyone is happy in this scenario - the tourist is experiencing a fascinating off the beaten track destination and something completely different from the norms of their home country, and local people are delighted because they are receiving substantial (relative) monetary income from this local ecotourism.
Assuming that this infrastructure has been established, the community is all set to reap the benefits of community ecotourism. The only problem is, that there are no tourists visiting at this stage.
Marketing of Community Ecotourism Projects (without any funding of course)
So the community is set to go - they’re rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of attracting tourists. They understand that they’ll make significant amounts of alternative income if the community ecotourism project is a success. Tourists need to be attracted though. How is this done with no funding whatsoever?
Tourists invariably plan their vacations by one of three mediums: the internet, travel guidebooks, and tour operators (who arrange everything for them).
1 . Marketing through the internet.
The community ecotourism project needs an online presence, and ideally it’s own website. It costs about $50 per year to buy a domain name, host it and have a website. If $50 can be found in donations from the local community, a dedicated website is possible. If $50 cannot be found, websites can be hosted for free on sites such as Googlepages.com and hubpages.com (I suggest these ones for a reason that comes later - namely making money from the website).
To make a website, a computer is of course necessary. Maybe (ideally) there is an internet cafe nearby (eg. in the nearest local town) - the owner might be persuaded to let the ecotourism project management team use it for free, or at least at a discount, because it is worth the internet cafe’s while considering the subsequent influx of tourists that will result from the marketing of the region - tourists that will of course use this very internet cafe in the future.
Assuming that a website can be set up, it is not hard to learn how to do so (I did it with no help and look where I ended up! With an online South America travel guide….). Free website sites such as Googlepages.com and Hubpages.com are pretty self explanatory. If you’ve found $50 to set up a dedicated website (this option is of course best), you’ll need a website editing program such as Dreamweaver, which usually costs hundreds of dollars (do not dispair though - you can get this type of program free if you download µTorrent and use a site such as thepiratebay.org to download a version for free - this is of course completely illegal, and I’m not suggesting that any poor local community should do it… of course not…).
Note - everything up to this stage can still be achieved with $0.
Assuming you now have a website, it needs to be seen by potential visitors. One can advertise for free on various country specific travel websites (plus you’ve already put adverts up on some other websites seeking volunteers to assist in the development of the ecotourism project), but the best way to get visitors is from Google.
How do you get traffic from Google? You can start of by reading Bruce Clay’s Search Engine Optimisation guide - a fantastic starting point from which all my SEO skills developed. Thanks Bruce!
2. Travel Guidebooks & Marketing
Travel guidebooks series include Lonely Planet, the Rough Guides, Footprint, Frommers, Bradt and many more. Write to them all incessantly requesting a mention until your project receives one - it will take years but persist. This is one of the best means of free publicity.
Many of these guidebooks have website forums where you can post comments and leave a signature or link leading to your already established website to get extra publicity - the Frommers and Thorntree Lonely Planet forums drive the most traffic (but also see ivebeenthere.co.uk; Aardvarktravel.com; independenttraveler.com; bootsnall.com; fodors.com/forums, plus any country specific travel forums you might find).
3. Marketing through local tour operators
National and local tour operators will invariably have already established plenty of contacts - use them. Tell them about the new ecotourism project that has just been developed in your community, and encourage them to send tourists to you by offering them a healthy commission rate. Assuming that you only have a camping zone and family homestays established at this stage, it might be best to save this option until you’ve built your ecolodge (that bit is coming… don’t worry!)
When the Tourists Start to Arrive
If tourists start to arrive within two to three years of the establishment of the idea for the project, you’re doing really well considering you don’t even have any funding. Generally speaking, a lot of patience is required - the attraction of visitors to a relatively unheard of “Third World” travel destination can be a long process.
Trickles of tourists - not many of them - should start to arrive. They found your website, or maybe read about you in a travel guidebook or heard about you from a friend, and they visit and stay with a family or alternatively they camp in a tent or hammock. Ask the tourists how you could improve the “tourism experience”. How can you make the project better? Ask them to complete a feedback questionnaire.
You’ve maybe had a trickle of tourists for a year or so. The local community is getting more enthusiastic - “We need more tourists” they cry. “We must build an ecolodge” you decide. But how? Ideally, part of the money that tourists spend when arranging one of the packages you offer will have been designated for a “community fund” that can be used to further develop the project - and build a fantastic ecolodge. But probably, to construct the ecolodge, you’ll need more money than has brought in by tourists already. Where can this money come from, assuming you have no funding?
Google Adsense & it’s assistance of sustainable ecotourism projects
You already have a website I’m assuming. Put Google Adsense adverts on the website, and make money from it. I really think that it’s one of the ultimate ways towards sustainable development for small scale tourism projects.
This point of Google Adsense is crucial to this article.
Assuming that you have a website, and it is starting to receive a reasonable amount of traffic, upload adverts onto the website you have established about the project and the local region’s tourism attractions, and make money from those adverts. Re-invest that money in the project, and build an ecolodge with the cash. Google adsense is a fantastic means towards sustainable tourism development.
As an example, I wasn’t a very “techy” person until a few years ago, but I still developed a website for the Piedra Blanca Community Ecotourism Project (in Ecuador), plus managed to achieve hundreds of hits per day on that website (thanks Bruce an his SEO [Search Engine Optimisation] tips - see earlier), and upload Google adverts that make an income of the equivalent of three times the wage of a local person working full time [admittedly I’m a good SEO]. Through various means of online advertising (in addition to Google Adsense, which makes the most), Piedra Blanca’s website makes over $5000 per year -and all of that is re-invested into the local community ecotourism project. That’s pretty sustainable development.
Management of the Community Ecotourism Project
By this stage, probably about five years after the first concept of a community ecotourism project, there’s a functioning ecolodge operating, along with a small restaurant, and various members of the local community are making money from tourism. The local people now understand that this new form of income, which supplements their traditional incomes, depends on the natural environment, and they actively try to conserve it to assure that tourism will be present for years to come.
Now we really do have local ecotourism - but in it’s ideal form in terms of sustainability - community ecotourism.
Now that tourism is established, it needs to be carefully managed.
The greatest problem affecting the long term sustainability of a community run ecotourism project is local politics and corruption.
The key concept here is democracy. This is after all a community run project. Foundations should ideally have been laid in the past (ie. in the Pre-Planning Stage) to lead to the establishment of a democratically elected panel of local people who manage the project. Proper elections should be held every three to five years to elect a “project manager” who will oversee the management of the community project. All the community (over a certain age, say 16, or get the kids involved and make it even younger) should have a right to a vote. Either just the project manager might be elected, alternatively a group of administrators, each with a different role (eg. project manager, treasurer / accountant, ecolodge manager, restaurant manager, tourist guide manager etc.) could be elected. The key concept is that it is a democracy, where individuals are held to account, and if the management of the project is poor, it’s administration can easily be changed by the will of the community. Without such a democratic basis to the management team, corruption, loss of money and the favouring of certain individuals invariably results (I’ve seen this almost everywhere). Every community tourism project I visit invariably suffers from these problems of corruption, which only exist because the community has no real means of changing the management of the project. Democracy is crucial.
As time progresses, tourism starts to bring significant alternative income into the community. As it is a community project, much of the income from tourists can be designated towards a “community fund” (eg. when tourists stay in the ecolodge, where does that money go?). This community fund can be used (as the community sees fit) to contribute towards the local school, or local health clinics, or to other community based sustainable development projects - as such everyone in the community benefits from tourism, and everyone has a reason to want to conserve the local environment upon which tourism depends, everyone is friendly towards the visitors, and all the community wants to attract more of them.
This is sustainable, community run ecotourism. And it can be developed without ant funding at all.
A Final Word
This is a blueprint of how almost any community, anywhere in the world, can establish a sustainable ecotourism project with no funding whatsoever. I feel that the guidelines can be applied to almost anywhere in the world - all that is needed beforehand is a region that tourists will find interesting to visit, and the will of the local population.
If you find yourself in a situation where you want to develop a project along these lines and need any further advice, please don’t hesitate to contact me.