That lack of access to market — and the lack of the knowledge, skills and infrastructure needed to run a successful travel business — is key. As Justin Francis of Responsible Travel puts it: “Being able to access the distribution chains of the tourism industry — to get guests through the doors — is difficult without the partnership of an established tour operator.” When CBT first appeared around 20-25 years ago, he says, NGOs and donors would pitch up at communities, build beautiful ecolodges, but allow the communities very little say — and then fail to provide the training, infrastructure and business know-how to lead to any kind of success. 

Having a voice, Francis says, is key where elected community representatives participate in the decision making: “The driving force behind successful CBT projects is local people setting the terms. It’s about them making informed decisions around how tourism develops.”

In the case of the Ccaccaccollo Women’s Weaving Cooperative in Peru’s Sacred Valley, it was three women that had that voice. “When they first came to us, only a handful could do traditional Inca weaving,” Sweeting says. Led by those women, Planeterra assisted with training, infrastructure and marketing, and the co-op has boomed, now owned and run by more than 65 individuals, with an attached homestay attracting overnight visitors. 

CBT can be especially beneficial in empowering women, who are often responsible for the homestay or dining components of a trip. Dreamcatchers, a tour operator in South Africa, recognised this over 30 years ago, and helped launch a range of CBT enterprises including ‘Kammama’, a selection of nationwide, women-run homestays and experiences, from cooking courses in Soweto to an overnight stay with a family in the Cape Winelands.

In the case of Ccaccaccollo, the ripple effect has been a huge uptick in education in the community: all the women involved are now fully literate in Spanish, the first generation to achieve this locally, and most have children in tertiary education — another first. “And there has been an uplift in the pride in their culture. They’re embracing it. They can see that people from dozens of countries travel to visit them because they have something special to offer,” says Sweeting.

That special offering is what’s in it for us. “For travellers, CBT offers a genuinely authentic experience and insight into local life,” says Zina Bencheikh, at Intrepid Travel. “Travellers are welcomed into a community and have the chance to immerse themselves.” Intrepid now aims to bring a degree of CBT into many of its sustainable, small-group adventure tours. “Our clients often talk about our CBT experiences as one of the unexpected highlights of their trip,” says Bencheikh.

So how do we spot the good guys? How do we know whether a lodge or restaurant or experience that claims to benefit a community genuinely is?  “Ask questions,” says Dr Kimbu. “Have a discussion with those organising your trip.” Bencheikh agrees. “Do your research. Before you visit, ask questions about how the project is run and where the money goes from your visit.” Travelling with a trusted tour operator is also sensible, as is looking out for any certification programmes such as B Corp. 

Covid-19, of course, has had a dreadful impact on CBT. Planeterra recently launched the Global Community Tourism Network, providing online training, promotion and marketing, to help organisations prepare for when tourists come back. “Many communities don’t have internet or phone access,” explains Sweeting. “So, we also have 16 strategic partnerships, mostly local non-profits with their own network. Our reach is now more than 800 community tourism enterprises in 75 countries.” 

On the flipside, Covid-19 has also changed how we want to travel. “There’s been a definite shift, with more travellers wanting to find purpose in their trips,” says Sweeting. “We need to take advantage of that. When you’re able to experience something owned and run by a community, it’s much more rewarding, and a more equitable experience for the host and the guest.” As Dr Kimbu puts it, “CBT has a sense of fairness and justice.” 

It’s that sense of fairness and justice that’s been behind the success of Spirit Bear Lodge for more than 20 years and one that the community hopes will last for generations. “I do hope that my children and future children continue with Spirit Bear Lodge,” Robinson tells me. “Seeing the growth in this company has been amazing. It’s a great way to learn and grow and thrive in our homelands.” You can’t say fairer than that.  

Published in the May 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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