Sumak Travel supports a business model chosen by local communities who want tourism to provide a complementary, rather than the sole source of their income. The difference is critically important. We believe that mass tourism is unsustainable and prefer an approach focused on more diversified livelihoods. I wrote recently about how community-based tourism can be a tool for sustainable development. Now we look at a concrete example: Prainha do Canto Verde, a small fishing village in Ceará state in the northeast of Brazil. The initiative is part of the Tucum Network, a local association of community-based tourism organisations, and a great promoter of ecotourism in Brazil.
The Prainha community has created its own eco-tourism initiative. Antonio Aires, a fisherman and one of the leaders of the project, says tourism supports improved living standards for local inhabitants without damaging their cultural traditions or environment. They started more than 20 years ago and today there are a variety of activities on offer: inns (pousadas), eco-walks, boat excursions, cultural immersion, artisan fishing, community activities, handicrafts, music, theatre, workshops, cooking… Approximately 1000 tourists come every year – a significant number, as the community consists of some 200 families. Many tourists become regular visitors returning every year.
The Tucum network represents ten coastal communities in Ceará state, along with two supportive NGOs in Fortaleza (the capital of Ceará). By grouping together through the network the communities share information, develop tourism skills, and seek to jointly market this beautiful part of the country. Traditionally, young people have left the coast and drifted away to urban centres because of a lack of employment and career opportunities. Tucum’s version of community-based eco-tourism is designed to keep people on the land, maintain the vibrancy of local culture, and reinforce the traditional livelihoods of fishing and farming.
Our research shows that on average these communities earn 15-20% of their total revenue from tourism. We contribute to make this sustainable by sending them an ongoing stream of foreign visitors, who were previously unaware of this option. These local communities don’t want to become dependent on tourism and don’t want tourism to transform their culture and traditions. However, they find that a reliable and relatively modest revenue stream from community tourism plays a vital role in helping them defend their land and protect against overdevelopment, disruptive mining, deforestation and other threats.
In total, 11 coastal communities rea part or the growing network, plus two associations in Fortaleza. We think the tourism industry would work better if, instead of having a few over-crowded and over-developed destinations, it had lots of smaller projects belonging to the same network. There could be hundreds of projects similar to Rede Tucum, representing thousands of small urban and rural communities, providing great travel experiences for tourists. Could it happen?