By Julia Offenberger, Copywriter & Member of the Responsible Travel Working Group, Discova (formerly Buffalo Tours)
From volunteering in a rural village to (unsolicited) donations to a local charity, more and more organisations are looking for ways to ‘do good’. And, whilst the underlying motivation of giving back to a community is certainly positive, many programs unfortunately have little long-term, or even detrimental, effect.
At Discova, we have been working closely with local communities for over a decade. As one of the world’s leading DMC’s, we recognise our vital role in driving positive change in the industry and have been successfully promoting sustainable community development with a variety of projects across our destinations in Asia. These community-based tourism initiatives are a responsible way for visiting groups – whether that’s student classes or corporate teams – to experience the local culture whilst giving back to the communities and truly making a difference.
One such example is in Om Goi District in Northern Thailand. Located 180 kilometres south from Chiang Mai, this is one of Thailand’s most impoverished districts and can only be reached by a four-hour drive through rural countryside and mountain roads. The communities that live there are mostly made up of the Karen minority group. In 2012, Discova started working with the district authority, village chiefs and local villagers to set up educational community-based tourism projects and, at present, have managed the construction of several vital water tanks as well as a kindergarten playground designed to improve children’s motor skills.
Based on the Om Goi initiative established by Discova, below are some of the key aspects that our experts consider essential when creating sustainable community-based tourism projects.
Conducting a needs analysis
One of the most important steps when developing a community-development program is assessing the real needs of the locals and identifying the existing issues that can be resolved both effectively and positively. It is also crucial that the community is directly involved in these decisions at the beginning. Not only are their voices heard but their direct involvement in the project will help to instil a healthy and long-term partnership.
Every year, our experts conduct a meticulous needs analysis in collaboration with the Om Goi District Authority, village chiefs and villagers. Last year’s assessment revealed that, due to its remote and mountainous topography, the growing population of San Ma Muang Village faced an ongoing water shortage during the dry season. To help resolve this problem, a water tank was built to collect rainwater, helping support the 80 families in the village. The project’s long-term effects have been a significant improvement in health, crucial support to the community’s agriculture-based economy and overall positive contribution to the local standard of living.
Applying a work-breakdown structure
Just as important as assessing the needs of the community is a breakdown of the various tasks into manageable workloads. This not only facilitates developing a clear work schedule, but helps set a timeframe, allocate the budget and identify potential risks.
The water tank in Om Goi District’s San Ma Muang Village was built between March and July 2019. A water tank is a large project and takes several groups to complete. By providing free project management, the experts at Discova set up a clear timeframe and ensured that the donations from each school were efficiently used in the project.
Creating additional revenue streams for locals
One of the aims of community-based tourism projects is to create supplementary income opportunities for the local community. Whether that’s homestays, catering or activities, it’s a great way to sustainably direct revenue to the community from tourism whilst giving travellers the chance to get to know the local culture and experience the real local life.
To accommodate the visiting student groups in Om Goi, we worked closely with the villagers and assessed which of the houses were best suited for homestays. By providing training and equipment to the villagers, visiting students are now able to stay in houses within the community.
Encouraging cultural exchange
Besides giving back to the community, the second motivation for many visitors to participate in community-based tourism projects is the cultural aspect; experiencing the authentic culture away from mass tourism.
To prepare the ground for cultural exchange, the international students participated in activities led by the local residents. Motivated by their cultural background, these activities included basket and cotton weaving, cooking classes, bamboo bike racing and hiking in the remote hills. Such activities allow for the opportunity to interact with the community whilst preserving its cultural heritage.
Working with the right people
Last, but by no means least, are the people that make a project work. Without the right team to facilitate conversations and bridge the cultural gap between travellers, community and other project partners, it would not be possible to set up a successful community project – it’s all based on trust and understanding.
In Om Goi, Discova enlisted a specific project manager and visiting students were accompanied by guides who acted as facilitators and translators. The ability to speak English, Thai, as well as the local dialect, was essential in providing cultural guidance to the students and ensuring mutual understanding between the community and visitors.
Making a difference and having a positive impact starts with the desire to help. At Discova, we want to channel this desire and direct it in the right places, ensuring help is given where it’s needed and also providing the relevant support. With 95% of our people being from local communities, our projects are more than just CSR initiatives. We’ve grown up in these communities. We care about these communities. And we continue to support the sustainable development of these communities.