Community-Based Tourism: Creating Authentic Travel Experiences

Locations in this article:  Austin, TX Chicago, IL

Child ChinaCommunity-based tourism seems to be the new kid on the ecotourism block. Virtuous Traveler Leslie Garrett explains the idea behind living or working with a local community to learn about everyday life, and how you can find your own experience while traveling.

Traveler Liz Manning calls herself “grateful” to the family near Zomba, Malawi in Africa, who opened their doors to her and gave her a genuine experience of life in their remote village.

For two weeks, Manning helped the mother prepare meals, looked after younger children and attended school with the eldest daughter.

And she considered this an incredible vacation.

You can be forgiven for raising your eyebrows. Yet community-based tourism, as it’s called, is a trend that seems to be taking off among those who interested in “responsible” travel or ecotourism. While ecotourism—by definition—supports local economies and provides a travel experience based in conservation and culture, community-based tourism takes it a step further.

By visiting a community—for a day, overnight or longer— travelers are given the chance to see life as a member of their host community.

My own experience in community-based tourism was more than a decade ago with the hill tribes in Northern Thailand. And, I confess without a touch of flakiness, it was a life-changing experience.

Removed from all the trappings of my modern life, I felt a bit lost. If I didn’t have my business card with me, how could I know who I was? I ventured into these remote villages carrying my share of sympathy for these people—without electricity, without running water.

Smiling Old WomanTruth is, after a few days of simply sharing their homes, their food and their customs, I began to envy them. They were, for the most part, happy. Happier it seemed than my constantly frazzled big-city friends. Certainly happier than I was.

At the end of my journey, I came away enriched by the experience and, I hope, having contributed something of value to them as well, beyond my U.S. dollars.

Liz Manning, who now works for GAP Adventures, a company founded on the principles of sustainability and responsibility, says she got a “firsthand” look at life in the community. Community-based tourism allows travelers to “get involved and help give back to the areas in which they’re staying,” she says. And, she points out, it works both ways with “the traveler and host community [enjoying] a unique cross-cultural learning experience.”

Manning also recommends looking into homestays, where you’re put up with a local family and can take part in their day-to-day lives. For more on homestays, click here.

Megan Epler Wood, whose firm EplerWood International helps the World Bank develop sustainable tourism initiatives, says that community-based tourism can offer “a genuine cultural viewpoint shift … and changes lives” but has “the potential to be the most damaging … there’s the opportunity for exploitation.” The key, she insists, is a community that is properly prepared to host travelers and offer them authentic experiences.

Epler Wood suggests seeking out tour companies that can respond to your questions about what the community is getting out the visits, what the traveler can expect and what sort of cultural interpretation program is available. Authenticity is paramount, she stresses. “It has to be organized,” she says. “There has to be an interpretive aspect that creates genuine understanding.”

But, as Epler Wood points out, for many travelers, particularly first-timers, it’s crucial to embark on community-based tourism through a tour company that that properly prepares both the traveler and the community for the visit.

My brother Jeff Garrett still laughs at his foray into community-based tourism when he traveled miles upriver in the rain to Borneo to spend New Year’s Day with a remote tribe in a trip arranged by his government-operated hotel. After the village youth put on a dance and most of the other travelers had drifted off, one of the elders leaned over to him and asked through an interpreter if he wanted to see “how we really celebrate.”

He was curious. Next thing he knows, someone pulled out a generator, hooked up a karaoke machine and were insistent that he give it a try. He stayed for the day and notes that it reinforced his distaste of staged performances. “The least interesting part of the day was the show,” he says now.

But the saving grace of it all, he says, is that it was “fascinating to see their culture today.”


GAP Adventures, 800-708-7761,
Responsible Travel, a UK-based agency that works with Conservation International to create community-based tourism initiatives: +44 (0)1273 600030,
The International Ecotourism Society,

Leslie Garrett is author of The Virtuous Consumer: Your Essential Shopping Guide for a Better, Kinder, Healthier World.Visit her at

Previously By Leslie Garrett::

Capital Green: Washington, DC’s Eco-Tourism Cred

Austin: Texas Gold and Green

Carbon Offsets: Travel With a Clean Conscience?

Eco-Oakland: The City You Only Thought You Knew

Chicago: More Green Than Meets the Eye


The Good, The Green and the Downright Crazy Tours

Green Travel Gadgets

Green Honeymoons

Bye Polar: Arctic Travel

Don’t forget to check out our Responsible Travel section for more green travel ideas.