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Associating from below: a tool for development

Itzel San Roman Pineda [ ]
The University of Sheffield

Sustainable tourism models like community-based tourism (CBT) are the new flagship used by multilateral institutions like the World Tourism Organisation to foster environmentally-friendly development in marginalised communities in the Global South (UNWTO, 2019). Nevertheless, in Asia and Latin America, these models have not produced long-term positive results and the distribution of benefits has not reached all the members of communities (Jamal and Dredge, 2014, Jamal and Camargo, 2014, Lacey and Ilcan, 2015, Schilcher, 2007, Hampton and Jeyacheya, 2015, Mitchell and Muckosy, 2008).

The Mexican Government uses CBT to alleviate poverty in marginalised regions of the country, usually indigenous and rural communities. The institutions leading the implementation of CBT lack experience in propelling tourism and their efforts are disarticulated from the federal tourism strategy executed by the Ministry of Tourism. Therefore, the lifespan of CBT projects is short, as these tend to disappear as soon as funding finishes and fail to achieve financial viability due to weaknesses in their design, internal organisation and commercialization.

Photograph by the author.

Lessons from CBT’s on the Yucatan Peninsula
As part of my PhD studies, I research CBT in three different communities – one indigenous, one rural and one coastal – located in natural protected areas (NPAs) or in their vicinities in the Yucatan Peninsula. CBT have been operating for over fifteen years within these communities, with each receiving different amounts of visitor influx and containing distinct touristic amenities as well as forms of associativity. Even in the communities with the highest influx of visitors, gains obtained from tourism do not reach all members of the community because of the reduced size of the industry, the time needed for its consolidation, as well as legal and administrative regulations that prevent the engagement of the whole population in CBT. Nevertheless, CBT generated second order effects that, although are not translated in economic gains, strengthen the social and solidarity economy (SSE) of the community and lead to the “reproduccion ampliada de la vida” of its members (Coraggio, 2011, Coraggio, 2014).

For these three communities, CBT represents a way to diversify the survival livelihood strategies (SLS) of households, as external shocks shrank their income and resources. These external shocks relate to the creation of NPAs, droughts that affected cattle raising and survival agriculture, the increase of health risks due to changes of the environment, and the regulation of the main economic activity in these areas [fishing]. To access resources to establish CBT projects, communities had to create cooperatives or community groups, as it was required by the public and private institutions that provided funding. They did not get any training on cooperativism and this hindered the operation of their organisations. However, these organisations flourished because of the values of solidarity and reciprocity among their membership (Lemas and Garcia de Fuentes, 2019). These values are strategic for households in marginalised communities to achieve livelihoods, to participate in networks of social exchange, and to access additional pools of resources (Gonzalez de la Rocha, 1994, Gonzalez De La Rocha, 2004).

Positive effects of CBT’s
In the CBT implementation stage, the unintended gains consist in the improvement of human, social and relational capitals. Human and social capitals increase due to trainings organised by the articulators [NGOs and government institutions that propelled CBT], and from the organisation and operation of the touristic activities. Participants in CBT gain leadership skills and strengthen their psychological resources, as they become more confident with the knowledge learnt empirically from providing touristic experiences. Relational capital inside the community increases because members have to organise and work together to obtain funding and operate CBT, and by seeking strategic alliances with external stakeholders, this grows outside the community. Building relational capital through the establishment of linkages with external actors – such as travel agencies and hotels – allows the communities not only to reach the tourism market, but also to access tacit knowledge that improves the operation and management of their touristic experiences.

CBT organisations in the three communities established agreements for conflict prevention, to improve their touristic offer, to distribute the costs and resources required for building skills and, to ensure that all the participants have an equal opportunity of obtaining gains. These agreements include the establishment of equal prices for similar touristic experiences to avoid unfair competition; taking turns to ensure all the CBT organisations sell their services and products; work together in the maintenance of the common areas; and sharing costs of trainings and certifications.

Once tourism becomes a steady SLS, and visitors’ influx increases towards the communities, community members that are not directly involved in CBT can create new ventures. These entrepreneurships happen mostly in the informal sector in retail trade, provision of temporary accommodation, food, beverages, and production and commercialization of local handcrafts. These new businesses allow communities to provide complete tourism experiences, and the integration of these can create a collective efficiency that can reduce rural to urban migration, strengthen CBT and the local SSE.

Photograph by the author.

For some leaders of the tourism entrepreneurships, CBT becomes a political statement as they view it as an act of resistance to the hegemonic economic and political systems. These members of the communities have continually faced oppression, corruption and exploitation and through CBT they see themselves as the creators of opportunities “for their own” in the forms of jobs with decent work conditions, normally out their reach in any other region or industry. Members of these communities are empowered to negotiate with the government better conditions regarding tourism in their communities to increase their benefits. Leaders of CBT entrepreneurships in the three communities have driven the creation of Municipal Councils of Tourism, where they are currently advocating for the creation of “Regulatory Programs of Tourism” to delineate the type of touristic development allowed in the communities anticipating the entrance of large investors interested in building touristic amenities.

Conflicting perceptions towards CBT’s
Representatives from the different communities described tensions and distrust towards “outside” stakeholders such as government officials, NGOs, consultants and the private sector. These tensions are reciprocal as CBT articulators stated concerns on the existing empowerment of the communities, and the difficulties to work with them using participatory methods to implement additional productive programs. Government institutions in charge of NPAs’, constantly constraint CBT organisations by reducing their loading capacity for environmental protection, while they allow the private sector to construct touristic amenities inside these protected territories. These institutions also require expensive certifications to the CBT organisations to authorise their operations in the NPAs but they allow foreign touristic companies to work without official accreditations inside these spaces. This indicates the different aims that external and internal stakeholders have for CBT, its development, and work organisation. While external actors seek for the communities to protect the environment and grow in terms of economic gains, infrastructure, and tourism influx, the members of the communities want a controlled “growth” where their territory and ventures find protection to face the rising interests of external investors. They see large investors as a potential risk that could displace them due to unfair competition, jeopardise the preservation of the ecosystems, and lead to an increase of insecurity, which is common in other main touristic centres in Mexico.

Most of the external actors indicated that commercializing CBT is challenging due to the lack of “professionalization” of the communities, as they do not respond and operate at the same speed of the consolidated tourism destinations. These actors disregard that these communities rely on survival agriculture, logging and, fishing and not solely on tourism.

Final reflections
The unintended gains obtained from CBT can potentially improve local communities, through the strengthening of the local SSE. Despite these benefits, communities on the Yucatan Peninsula continue to resist the pressure by the government that continuously strengthen regulations and constrain CBT. These communities also must defend their rights over their territories as private investors become more interested in them to expand the tourism industry at any environmental and social costs.

Therefore, it is necessary to design a CBT model from below that acknowledges the objectives of the members of marginalised communities, their fight to resist the neoliberal system and capitalizes the values of reciprocity and solidarity that can foster the local SSE. This model can help the public sector to create the appropriate public policies that allow these communities to develop in their own terms.


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