GENEVA – A journey to the heart of the Mayan forest, to a river inhabited by caimans and piranhas, or to a small, tranquil island, can begin without even leaving home: the traveller has only to visit the "Redturs" internet site ( Note 1) where more than 100 small communities in six Latin American countries present their natural and cultural attractions and explain to alternative tourists how to get there.
This "Portal of Living Cultures" is no tourist guidebook but the virtual headquarters of a project run by the International Labour Organization (ILO) to support indigenous and rural communities in their efforts to create decent jobs and develop healthy economies in ways that protect their cultural heritage and natural resources.
Large numbers of tourists mean opportunities to generate income from tourism. According to figures published by the World Tourism Organization, some 700 million people travelled abroad in 2003, and the number is expected to grow to 1.6 billion by 2020.
"Globalization offers opportunities but also creates strong competitive pressures and demands high levels of innovation and specialization", warns Carlos Maldonado, an ILO expert in charge of the Redturs project which currently includes communities in Bolivia, Brazil, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala and Peru. "The problem is that many of these small communities are facing a new market with serious structural constraints."
Redturs, which started up in 2001, this year assumed the functions of technical secretariat of a Sustainable Development Network which aims to facilitate exchanges of information, spread promotional and market experience, allow sharing of legal and managerial knowledge and provide access to enterprise development services. The objective is to develop the capacities of the communities so that they can benefit from the new tourist flows.
The last meeting of representatives of the small communities involved in the Network, at the end of 2003 in Costa Rica highlighted the importance of the communities concerned taking up the challenge of providing tourist services themselves. In the Declaration signed in San José, they affirm that "We refuse to sell or let our land to persons who are not from our communities."
"We want to ensure that our own communities are the ones in charge of planning, operating, monitoring and developing tourism", according to Rodrigo Flores, President of the Plurinational Federation of Community Tourism of Ecuador (FEPTCE), one of the Redturs participating organizations.
Carlos Maldonado explained that for the community representatives, "equitable distribution of the revenues that may be generated by tourism is fundamental".
For Redturs, however, heritage conservation is also a central objective. The San José Declaration makes this clear, and the representatives of the six countries have agreed that whatever the potential economic benefits of a project, it may be halted if it entails "a burden for our people, our culture and the environment."
Redturs maintains that in the light of the unprecedented demand for nature tourism and encounters with local cultures, it is vital to aim for a form of tourism that is sustainable, economically viable, environmentally responsible and based on social solidarity. One of the project's fundamental objectives is to create opportunities for decent employment for women and men in these communities, which are often located in remote areas where development opportunities are few.
A virtual trip through the site's "For the Tourist" section shows the sort of trips on offer.
The trip "Jungle and piranha fishing with the Huaorani" in Ecuador involves a six-hour journey from Quito overland and by river to an area of humid tropical forest. The trip is operated by Jungle Tour, a small enterprise that has signed an agreement with the local community to promote tourist projects and conservation.
Totally different conditions prevail on the Old Providence and Saint Catalina Islands in Colombia, which offers mountainous landscapes, a coral reef, folklore and small family-run hotels on the Caribbean coast. Trips are run by ECOASTUR, an association embracing hotels, travel agencies and restaurants in these communities that have chosen to join forces "in order to be able to take decisions independently and make a real difference in the areas of environment and culture".
In Livingston, Guatemala, the NGO Ak'Tenamit proposes a trip of several hours from the capital overland and by river to the Tatín and Quehueche region in the heart of the tropical Caribbean rain forest. Working with 30 Q'echi'es Mayan communities, it has begun over the last three years to involve them in providing tourist services as an alternative source of income.
"We are not talking about ecotourism but about something that is both more varied and more specific", according to Maldonado. Nature is a vital element, but the most important aspect is cultural exchange: "We prefer to call it rural community-based tourism, a term which can encompass ethnotourism, agrotourism, adventure tourism, as well as history and nature tourism, or mystic tourism."
In 2004 the ILO obtained the first international technical cooperation funds to promote this project. Redturs will now seek to consolidate local and national networks and support promotional and marketing activities. One plan is to establish a "brand label" certifying the authenticity of community-based tourism projects – that is, tourism based on solidarity, cooperation, respect for life and the sustainable exploitation of ecosystems.