Using tourism to help sustainable development, Bamboo Village is not your usual home stay vacation. You travel and communities get a chance to grow.
In the postcard pretty village of Thrikkaipetta, in the Wayanad district of North Kerala, Kabani offers travelers the opportunity to live with a local family and experience the traditional farming culture of Kerala. Bamboo Village, as Thrikkaipetta has been christened after its bamboo craftpersons, represents a promising community tourism and development model.
In conversation with Sumesh Mangalassery, founder of Kabani:
How and why you started the community tourism project and what was your vision for it?
Bamboo Village is the brainchild of two organizations – Uravu, an NGO in Thrikkaipetta village working on bamboo handicrafts, and Kabani, a tourism-focused organization. Bamboo Village is not just a tourism project; this initiative aims to sustainably develop the village as a whole. As tourism researchers and campaigners against unsustainable tourism, we realized the need for an alternative to mainstream tourism that benefits people. At Bamboo Village, we want the communities involved to be creative, self-reliant and responsible for their own living conditions and socio-economic security through active participation in development activities. Organic farming, bamboo handicrafts, food processing units and home stays and tourism activities all fall under the purview of the Bamboo Village.
Organic farming and handicrafts ensure sustainable income generation, whereas tourism provides a complementary income source. The investment of the farmers in tourism has been kept to the minimum, since we don’t want it to replace agriculture as the main source of livelihood. We also view the conversation of the environment and our natural resources as an integral part of the initiative.
How have the participating families benefited from the project? What has been the feedback from travelers and guests?
The farmers of the village benefit from the tourism aspect of the initiative in many ways. Families offer home stays to visitors. They did not invest anything major to do this; they use their spare rooms for the guests. The tourists use local taxis and vehicles for transportation. Some village residents have been trained as interpreters. Fourthly, we offer travelers the option of trying traditional food with various families within the village. Therefore, almost all the money spent by travelers remains within the village and there are diverse income opportunities for all residents.
Tourism has been facilitated to provide additional income for local people and to help us develop a community fund through which we can provide training and development to village residents, on activities such as food processing, small businesses, etc. We have developed a benefit sharing mechanism among the village residents wherein 50 % of the accommodation charges from the guests go to the home stay providers, while 30 % of the income goes to the community fund. Other service providers, like taxi owners, also contribute a small amount from their income towards the community fund.
So far, we have received very good feedback from our guests. Once you visit the village, you become a friend or part of our community. Most of our guests like the food, the way they are treated in the village, and the opportunities to understand the culture and life style of the village. In fact, all of our guests who stay for a considerable amount of time in the village leave us with tears. They really understand, respect and encourage the concept behind the programme. Most of our guests have recommended us to their friends and relatives, and want to come back to the village again.
What are some of the challenges you face as an organization?
There are many challenges that could surface in this initiative. Making it inclusive can be a big challenge. Certain families in the village cannot participate in some of the tourism activities due to a lack of facilities and communication skills. This creates a sort of class issue; the lack of participation and the subsequent differences in benefits may create jealousy among the residents. Also, some activities of the programme get more income than others (for ample like accommodation), creating potential conflicts and affecting their relationship with each other. We haven’t yet faced anything like this here, but many community tourism experiences around the world show signs of this. Pressure from mainstream tourism is also a challenge. Enhancing the capacity of the villagers and equipping them towards the requirement of the programme still need lots of resources, and is time consuming.
Is tourism the main income for participating families? How do you deal with off-season slow down of arrivals, like during the monsoons or the summer?
Considering the unpredictability and vulnerability of the tourism sector, tourism is not visualized as the main income source for the community. The tourism-related income is seen as a supportive income to compensate for the diminished income levels, during the transformation from the current agricultural practices to organic farming. Most of the people involved in this tourism program are also involved in other income generation activities, so off-season and slow down of arrivals does not affect the participating residents much.
What do you think are the negative effects of a community tourism project like Bamboo Village?
Tourism is an activity that touches the life of local communities in many ways. It consumes their culture, lifestyle and natural resources. So the impact of tourism is also expected to be manifold. Bamboo Village is a very small project and it is too early to assess its negative impacts. We take the negative effects of community tourism in case studies very seriously, and try to address these in the orientation programs we organize for the local community. We share our vast experiences as a research and campaign organization working on tourism issues in Kerala and elsewhere, and believe in an approach where people play a central role by deciding, assessing and monitoring the developments and their priorities.
What are some of the steps you have taken or intend to take to deal with these effects?
The community fund set up by us is facilitating many income generation and other activities in the village. It provides a feeling of ownership among the residents who are not directly participating or benefiting from the initiative.
Have you noticed any differences, negative or positive, in Bamboo Village or its residents since the start of this initiative?
The women home stay hosts in the village have some very heartening stories. Many of them feel the initiative has given them a boost in confidence and the opportunity to mingle with different kinds of people from all over the world. They can now communicate in fairly good English, and try to understand the culture of their guests’ home country. The cultural exchange makes the women reflect upon their role in the village, and in society in general. This intercultural exchange is equally beneficial to the youth and children in the village. I can also say that the quality of life of the participating families have changed for the better. They are now seeking alternatives in many aspects of life; for instance, many families now practice better waste management and hygiene, and have more respect for the environment.
What are your future plans for Bamboo Village?
We slowly want to replicate our work in other parts of the country. We gradually aim to build a network of responsible tourism initiatives, and advocate for policy level changes for tourism that is more community oriented, and yet that does not make communities overly dependent on tourism.