This is the second in a three-part series exploring ways communities are playing a greater role in planning and developing their tourism industries. Guest blogger Joe Bly is a former documentary producer and writer, going beyond film and television to tell stories of social and urban progress.
Before the drama of the Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro can begin on August 5th, and the Paralympics in September, another drama has to conclude: preparing the city to host one of the biggest and highest profile events on the planet. Of course, when selected in 2009, Rio was already a premier tourist destination, with tourism revenue representing 67% of the city’s GDP. It hosted about 1 and a half million foreign tourists that year, a third of those for a single event, Carnival.
But since then, Brazil has spent almost $12 billion upgrading nearly every level of infrastructure required to host the games. That’s not just for specialized sports facilities and team dormitories. The city has struggled to completely revamp its train and subway systems, water and waste management systems, and amid controversy, relocate entire residential neighborhoods. This to host what is essentially a single, unique visitor attraction. And every effort is stalked by questions of what is the ultimate benefit, and for whom.
Here is where we can draw parallels and lessons for any location scaling up tourism capacity. Even at the other end of the spectrum, a locale with little or no tourism infrastructure or resources, the issues of effective capacity building and community benefit remain the same. So what does launching a tourism industry from scratch look like?
Community-based tourism (CBT) is a model in which often remote communities host visitors in the homes of residents and provide access to their unique attraction and cultural events. The most familiar form is ecotourism. 2800 miles northwest of Rio, the Manaus region of the Amazon is home to numerous community-based ecotourism projects. There is little tourism infrastructure deep in the jungle, but trekkers can homestay with local families, hire guides and riverboat excursions and buy local foods and handicrafts. The cultural access is as unique an offering as the setting. Most programs are planned and administered entirely by local residents with training and guidance provided by the government or NGOs. The emphasis is on creating direct and sustainable economic benefit for local residents and enhancing their autonomy, while requiring little capital. This approach to tourism is found in nearly every developing country in the world.
Yet CBT in this form is virtually nonexistent in the United States. Could this approach be adapted to locales here that wish to develop a tourism industry where none existed before. I found one rare example in a very small community that shares a communally held resource as exceptional as any Olympics – a cultural heritage of quilting.
Tourist economy built by hand – Gee’s Bend, Alabama
In the heart of Alabama, there is a bow in the Alabama River wrapping around the area of Gee’s Bend so as to almost make it an island, nearly inaccessible, but for one road and a ferry. It is a very rural home to about 200 mostly African American residents. What puts it on the map is a long history of exquisite quilts made by generations of Gee’s Benders. These quilts have hung in museums and art galleries, and have sold for as much as $20,000. But Gee’s Bend had almost no ability to accommodate visitors interested in quilting and local heritage; there was little coordinated marketplace where quilts could be found, no eateries or overnight lodging, and no related cultural or historical programming. Development grants from the Ford Foundation and tremendous assistance from groups like Sustainable Rural Regenerative Enterprises for Families (SURREF), and Auburn University, have allowed Gee’s Bend to decide collectively how to develop a community based tourism industry, physically and in expertise.
The Gee’s Bend town of Boykin already had a quilting collective established during the Civil Rights movement that met and worked in a community building. This collective and building has been developed into the hub of quilt visiting, serving as a shop, museum, information center, and classroom.
An organized quilting trail and maps now help guide visitors through the area. Quilters offer overnight stays in their own homes. Staffing is local. Marketing, sales, tours, visitor services, retail are all staffed by trained local residents.
Renovations and construction of new buildings such as additional guestlodging and a food center is done by local labor with an emphasis on locally-sourced materials.
The Gee’s Bend area now has a café, renovated guest houses, a calendar of events, and is promoted regionally and statewide. Through community-based planning and implementation, residents are able to capture more of the economic benefits, while preserving and promoting a unique heritage. The takeaways could apply to any locale in the US starting from scratch, and maybe even Rio. CBT emphasizes collective decisions about how a community exploits its communal resources, and as in Gee’s Bend, every development has to maximize benefit. More than just raise tourism revenue, any effort or investment has to cultivate ability and entrepreneurship within the community, adding mutually supportive, interlocking pieces of capacity. I can think of no better metaphor than a quilt.
It has never been easier for a community, lacking any accommodations, to market themselves and host visitors from anywhere within their own homes – now that Airbnb and short term rentals are almost instantly ubiquitous. Yet we do not yet see widespread community-based tourism facilitated by Airbnb. What’s missing – the coordination. My next post asks ‘Is any locality or community coordinating short term rental as a tourism development strategy?’