Participating in local experiences and spending the night in a local host's home were part of my community tourism experience hosted by Community Homestay Network in Nepal. | Photo: JoAnna Haugen

June 3, 2024

In Nagarkot, I followed my homestay host through her steep, terraced garden. She taught me how to pluck squash from the vine, then watched carefully as I washed dirt from the leaves. In an open doorway, she boiled milk from the cow on a small charcoal stove. Both became part of my dinner, which I ate on my homestay family’s terrace overlooking the village, a rural community with 150 people.

In Panauti, I kicked my shoes off outside next to the parked car. My host ushered me through the front door, past the apartment rented out on the first floor, and up the stairs, where I was given the choice of three bedrooms. Dinner would be at 6:30 p.m., which offered plenty of time for my host’s 25-year-old son (working in tech from home) to show me around the town – a community of 28,000 people situated at the confluence of the Rosi and Punyamati Rivers.

These delightful and insightful homestay experiences in Nepal were incredible gifts in and of themselves. But as one of several guests hosted by Community Homestay Network (CHN) as part of its Community Connect event, I was also given the opportunity to observe and listen to how others reacted to similar experiences.

A homestay is exactly what it sounds like: Instead of sleeping in accommodations like hotels or hostels, I stayed in a private room in people’s homes. This is a form of community tourism, which means it is a travel experience that is owned, led, and managed by local people and communities.

The concept of community tourism is becoming increasingly popular. As the tourism industry wakes up to the fact that sustainability must be at the forefront of how it operates and within the experiences it creates and delivers, community tourism is a natural draw. Plus, demand is increasing as more travelers express interest in “off the beaten track” experiences.

My fellow travelers were journalists, influencers, and tangential members of the media, and all were well traveled. They were eager to learn about the local culture, participate in hands-on activities, and stay in the homes of local residents. Yet, as I listened to them process their experiences, I also realized that part of the value and success of community tourism lies in how we communicate about them.

With that in mind, here are several suggestions for improving marketing and communications about community tourism so that travelers are adequately prepared and local people appropriately and meaningfully benefit.

Clarify expectations for travelers.

Communities (and the residents in them) come in all shapes and sizes: Rural, suburban, or urban. Accessible by car, train, motorbike, and/or foot. Piped for water access, or maybe not.

This is all to say that community tourism experiences manifest in many different ways. The best way to prepare travelers and establish appropriate expectations is to be very clear about what they are likely to encounter with the environment and experience. This includes things like:

  • Physical environment - temperature, terrain, etc.
  • Facilities and amenities - flush or squat toilets, water access (hot, potable, etc.), shared or private spaces, quality of gear, types of transportation, etc.
  • Engagement with activities - types of activities, observation or hands-on, physical strenuousness, etc.

The truth is that not every experience is ideal for every person, and that’s okay. If you are concerned that something might turn people off (like a lack of hot water for bathing), don’t be. It is much better for travelers to be made aware and self-filter themselves out of experiences than for them to be unprepared for what they’ll encounter.

Address concerns from a typical traveler perspective.

Let’s be honest about who travels for leisure purposes and is able to afford and access community tourism experiences. The average leisure traveler is a person of privilege in some way: They have the money and time to travel. They have access to a passport that allows them to travel. They know enough about travel experiences to seek out those that fit the “community tourism” definition.

This means that, when forming communication for travelers, do so through the lens of the typical traveler. This is particularly true for anything related to safety, hygiene, or comfort. For example, local people might be used to transportation without seatbelts or entering common spaces with bare feet, but these are things that might be perceived as unsafe or unhygienic by those coming from a place of privilege.

Be thoughtful about word choice so as to avoid reinforcing stereotypes.

Yes, you need to keep the typical traveler in mind when communicating about community tourism experiences. However, think carefully about how your word choices might resonate with this audience. It is important not to reinforce stereotypes, especially in relation to the perceptions typical travelers are likely to have.

For example, consider adjectives like “simple” or “cheap.” Who decides what these words mean, especially in day-to-day lives in communities around the world, all of which are distinctly different from each other? What is defined as “simple” for one person may be of a “luxury” standard within a geographical region. Or something that is “cheap” for a privileged traveler to buy might cost a week’s wages for a local resident. It is far better to specifically describe experiences or attributes without using subjective adjectives.

Use caution when describing community tourism as “authentic.”

The tourism industry loves to offer travelers “authentic” experiences, but like other subjective adjectives, this one can cause challenges in marketing and communications. However, “authentic” gets its own section because it is so tempting to use the word to describe community tourism. The reason is because at the heart of community tourism is the intention of introducing travelers to the typical way of life and deeply embedded cultural heritage.

One of the key challenges with using the words “authenticity” and “authentic” is that there is no shared meaning. Additionally (and unfortunately), “authenticity” is also sometimes equated with experiences and places that could be perceived as “rustic” or “primitive.”

Reflecting on the two homestay experiences I had in Nepal, one was not more “authentic” than the other; both were representative of reality for the people who live in Nagarkot and Panauti. However, the one in Nagarkot was perceived by some people I traveled with to be more “authentic” because it was comparatively more rural and simplistic.

Again, the best remedy for this challenge is to be specific in describing experiences and attributes rather than using the word “authentic” itself.

Provide context for experiences.

As an avid hand writer, one of the activities I most enjoyed during my trip was a session on the endangered Newar language script, Ranjana Lipi. The experience was a workshop where we learned to write some letters of the script. More importantly, however, was learning about the cultural and historical importance of the script because it is in danger of being lost forever.

Active learning experiences are a great way to involve travelers in community tourism. But don’t stop there. Provide background context for experiences so travelers understand their significance, ideally shared by the local people for whom this has a personal connection.

This also opens the door for even deeper traveler engagement. People who are particularly moved by an activity and its story may want to know more about what they can do to continue learning about or supporting community tourism initiatives once they return home.

Concretely explain the economic, social, environmental, and cultural benefits.

Recent Phocuswright research found that travelers are largely unaware of how their presence and actions contribute to the sustainability of a destination. Sustainability is largely associated with the environment, but the positive ripple effects of how and where travelers spend money and place their attention matters a great deal.

When travelers participate in appropriately executed community tourism experiences, they may also be financially supporting access to education and healthcare for local residents. They might be signaling the importance of preserving and protecting cultural practices. They may be justifying the need for environmental conservation. These kinds of ripple effects aren’t observable by travelers, but they are examples of how tourism can positively impact the places travelers visit and the people they meet.

This is a reminder that travelers don’t know what they don’t know. And they won’t know about the many benefits of community tourism unless you specifically communicate about this.

Be thoughtful about visuals.

Tourism marketing loves a colorful costume, a wizened face, and limbs stacked with bangles and beads. Unfortunately, too much imagery used to promote “foreign” destinations to travelers relies heavily on depictions of people that accentuate differences, including their clothing, cultural traditions, spiritual practices, and daily ways of life. These kinds of depiction often romanticize culture and reinforce an inaccurate narrative about a community of people or a place.

Ensure that any visuals (photography or videography) are balanced and appropriate depictions. Avoid relying on stereotypes, and don’t choose imagery that is aesthetically pleasing but inaccurate. Imagery should be a reflection of what travelers can expect to see and experience when participating in community tourism.

Also, check in with the people who appear in visual imagery. They should give explicit consent in having their likeness used for marketing purposes. Be particularly mindful of imagery with children, and always respect the wishes of anyone who does not give consent.

Re-center the traveler perspective.

One of the key narratives we’ve told in the tourism industry for a long time is that tourism should be traveler-focused. Reinforcing this narrative has been to the detriment of the planet, people (especially those with historically marginalized identities), and the places they call home. When travelers and their desires are prioritized above all else, the conditions are ripe for commodifying cultures, exploiting natural resources, and creating friction in destinations.

Community tourism gives agency and power to local people. Hold onto that truth when developing marketing and communications messaging about community tourism, how to engage in experiences, and the people impacted. Avoid turning culture, history, and story into something simply to be extracted and exploited in the name of entertainment and enjoyment.

Travelers are, of course, encouraged to enjoy and appreciate community tourism experiences, but don’t hesitate to remind them that this isn’t about them. The world is, in fact, not a traveler’s playground, and that’s especially true in the context of community tourism, where privilege and power dynamics could place travelers and local residents on uneven footing. It is okay to clearly communicate about appropriate ways to behave, cultural nuances that may be unfamiliar, and expectations about what is and isn’t allowed.

Community tourism done right is a model for how travel – and travelers – can holistically benefit people and places. But this model can only fully be realized when it is supported by intentional and thoughtful marketing and communications messaging.



Related posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}

Don't Miss Out!

Biweekly newsletter highlights:

  • Latest Rooted articles and favorites from the archives.
  • Creative solutions addressing tourism's challenges.
  • Actionable storytelling and sustainable travel tips.
  • First-to-know details on learning opportunities.
  • Updates and discounts on relevant products, services, and resources.
  • Opportunities for highlighting your stories.