Community-based & pro-poor tourism: Two contemporary approaches to poverty reduction in developing and least developed countries

26 July 2011
ITC News


The travel and tourism industry is the world’s largest and fastest growing in­dustry, with an average growth rate of 7% in the past decade. If forecasts prove correct, tourism’s contribution to the global economy will rise to US$ 2 trillion by 2020 with 1.6 billion international tourists worldwide acc­ording to the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO).

Tourism drives development and acts as a driving force for social and economic expansion, especially in developing and least developed countries where it has shown encouraging results. Yet inappropriate tourism practices have damaged the environment, local cultures, landscapes and natural resources. 

In response to the widely reported negative effects of mass tourism in the 1980s, sustainable tourism became the new mantra for development focusing on ‘tourism which leads to management of all resources in such a way that economic, social and aesthetic needs can be fulfilled while maintaining cultural integrity, essential ecological processes, biological diversity and life support systems,’ as defined in 1988 by UNWTO. This notion became universal in 1996, when UNWTO, the World Travel & Tourism Council and the Earth Council outlined an Agenda 21 for the tourism and travel industry. Agenda 21 is a comprehensive plan of action to be used globally, nationally and locally by organizations of the United Nations system, governments and major groups in every area in which humans impact on the environment.

Poverty reduction and environmental concerns were at the heart of the tourism development debate, placing strong emphasis on the involvement of local communities in tourism planning and development processes. Based on the notions of local participation, empowerment and conservation, several alternative forms of tourism emerged, such as community-based tourism (CBT), ecotourism and rural tourism.

Throughout the years, a number of CBT projects have been implemented in developing countries, but their success has not been wide­ly monitored. Questions remain regarding the actual involvement and participation of the vulnerable and generally poor communities in these initiatives. In many cases CBT projects have failed to deliver financial viability due to lack of trade-off between costs and revenues, commercially unsustainable products, and weak market linkages, hence weak market demand.

In the 1990s attention was given to identifying more impact driven and practical means of using tourism as a vehicle for poverty alleviation by creating net benefits for the poor. The notion of pro-poor tourism emerged with a more market-led approach enabling more poor people to participate more effectively in the product development process. In straightforward terms, pro-poor tourism is not a niche sector or a specific product; it is a set of strategies whose aim is to have the benefits of tourism trickle down to vulnerable and poor communities, thereby enhancing links between tourism businesses and poor people to contribute to poverty reduction (see www.propoortourism.org.uk).

Pro-poor tourism sees the sector holistically, as a system. It stimulates economic vertical linkages within a sub-sector (accommodation, food, excursions, handicrafts, etc.) but also with horizontal linkages with other sectors (formal and informal) to impact a larger group of people. As a result the level of empowerment is richer in this inclusive approach because not only is there greater density of links but there is also a greater range of actors involved. 

Along the lines of this evolving thinking and taking into consideration tourism’s growth rate, a number of organizations (including multilateral, bilateral, non-governmental and research) are re-evaluating their approach to tourism development. According to a 2008 rep­ort for ITC by J. Mitchell and C. Ashley on ‘Communities Benefiting from Tourism’ (in Stra­t­egic review of the Export-led Poverty Reduction Programme), tourism initiatives tend to focus more and more on reducing tourism leakages, thereby boosting market access for the poor, often in relation to mainstream tourism. These leakages, on average, see some 55% of tourism expenditure remaining outside the destination country. 

Yet, depending on the location and the tourism infrastructure, the community-based model should still be considered as an approach that can deliver livelihood benefits. Although there are marked differences between the two concepts, they are not mutually exclusive in their implementation.

For more information please see: Scaglione, M., S. Marx, & C. Johnson. (2011). ‘Tourism and Poverty Alleviation Approaches: A case study comparison.’ in Keller, P. & T. Bieger (Eds.), ‘Tourism Development after the Crises. Global Imbalances – Poverty Alleviation’ (Vol. 5, pp. 207-226). Berlin: Erich Schmidt Verlag GmbH&Co.