Community Tourism - Worth the Dirt?

Community-based tourism, a now popular buzzword among backpackers and eco-travelers, touts a more "authentic" experience, placing you in lives of local people in rural communities.

In theory, it sounds great - eat, learn, interact, play, work, and live with the people indigenous to the areas you're exploring (a rare opportunity along the beaten path).  AND, know that your visit is benefiting these communities, often in dire straits for some form of sustainable economic opportunities.  For the intrepid, adventurous, and tolerant traveler, this can all be true.  But for many backpackers, community tourism is dirty, difficult, and down-right uncomfortable.  Sound like something you´d like to try?  Consider the following factors:

Things to Consider Before You Choose Community Tourism

Not all community tourism is the same 

Some communities simply clear out a bedroom for your visit, add another portion to their food preparation, and treat you as one of the family.  Others have built separate living quarters, complete with Westerner amenities like hot water, enclosed roofs, and private bathrooms (often times, these hosts have been instructed on Western culture, norms, and expectations).  Before you dive into a community visit, determine what type of facilities are made available, and ensure that you're comfortable with what's being offered.

Did you like going to summer camp when you were younger? 

Community tourism is nothing like summer camp, but if you still dislike the thought of bunk beds in a rustic, dirty, buggy cabin, then you likely won´t enjoy your digs with the host family.  Remember, most of these families live in rural, poor areas, existing on less that US$2/day.  Homes can be very basic, and often living in close contact with nature.  If being dirty still sounds like fun, then keep reading.

How are your non-verbal communication skills? 

Likely, English is not spoken by anyone in these rural areas.  So, unless you speak the local language, you´re going to be signing your way through your request for more chicken or less rice.  For many, this is a welcome challenge - it´s amazing how much can be communicated by pointing and a smile.

Are you ready to immerse yourself in someone else's lives? 

There are many challenges involved - eating unfamiliar foods, adjusting to the local schedule, living among the chickens and roosters (who, by the way, cock-a-doodle-doo WAY before dawn), walking miles for basic necessities, etc.  However, the rewards can be rich, educational, and inspiring - it's extremely rare to have such a first-hand view of the lives of people so different than you, culturally, economically, and personally.  My hosts have been among the most generous, hard-working, and genuine people I've ever met.    

If you dig the idea of connecting closely with local cultures, enjoy placing yourself in challenging situations, and are willing to look past the lack of western-style amenities, I urge you to give it a try. 

Tips on Community Based Homestays

Authenticity is at odds with luxury 

Not that any of the communities was luxurious, but the more amenities and comfort were available, the less of a connection I was able to make with the locals.  Make your choice of community tourism visits based on what's most important to you.

Connections don't happen just because you show up 

At first, locals may be hesitant to talk to you, as they are unfamiliar with your intentions and puzzled by your presence in their community.  Often, it takes a number of days before people are comfortable approaching you.  It's up to you to initiate conversation.

Trust is built quicker when you participate in their lives 

You may not be visiting a community to volunteer your time (or perhaps you are), but nothing builds a bridge like helping with the daily work.  Whether that means helping with meals, working in the fields, or teaching English to kids, do what you can to participate in the lives of the people you're visiting.  That's why you're there, isn't it?

Ask lots of questions, but be ready to tell stories 

You may be visiting to learn about the lives and cultures of the host community, but they are just as interested in learning about life from your home country.  Show photos, tell stories, and share customs!

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