Ecoclub Member Blogs
Some thoughts on the question of Community Ownership in Tourism.
Determining what an ideal situation or solution (or ultimate goal) could be in every real-world problematic situation is not a utopian exercise but, on the contrary, it is a useful rule of thumb: to evaluate how far we are from achieving the goal, how likely we are to achieve it and if we are currently moving closer or further away. For a meaningful discussion of alternatives, we have to choose a broad political and philosophical framework.
On this occasion we will examine the concept of community-owned tourism (COT) and try to tackle four key questions: (a) what constitutes a "local community" (b) according to which criteria an individual can be considered a member of a local community (c) which types of organisation are compatible with 'collective or community ownership' and (d) who should decide and who decides in practice about the previous three clarifications, in each case, or in general.
The Ecosocialist framework (Ecological, direct-democratic and devolved 21st century Socialism, as opposed to productivist, authoritarian and centralised 20th century Socialism) seems fully compatible with an Ecological & Socially-just Tourism (EST) as defined at http://ecoclub.com/about/philosophy . Tourism, which, after all, is locally produced and consumed, should also be locally and collectively owned and democratically planned, such as by the local community, a local cooperative and/or a local municipal or other public body.
Although it is easy to understand what the term "local community" usually denotes, accurately defining what it encompasses on the field is sometimes difficult. The level of easiness depends on a community's size/form, on the length of time during which the majority of its members have been residing there and on the level of solidarity and mutual aid between its members. A small village with 20 houses whose inhabitants families have been living there for generations and successfully cooperate in the management of a communal guesthouse can be easily understood by everyone as a local community and a COT example. At the other end think of a holiday 'village' (brand new or gentrified or re-inhabited abandoned village) comprising exclusively of holiday homes operated by one or more owners who reside elsewhere for the greater part of the year.
Most cases fall between these two "ends". In an increasingly mobile and globalised world (where unemployment directs people to the seemingly 'soft' / low barriers to entry, option of tourism) we may be getting more holiday 'village' examples and what constitutes a local community and a local community member (a constituency with the ability to decide/vote) will get less clear. Only a racist/nationalist would claim that because someone is a foreigner (i.e. someone who was born in another country) or who looks, dresses, behaves, believes "differently", should not be considered as a member of a local community irrespective of how many years they have lived in that community. Things become complicated, in the not so rare case where a local community is dominated by such racists/nationalist prejudice and does not accept or welcomes those they consider as "outsiders" or "intruders". This brings us to the 'who is to decide' issue where it is difficult to be dogmatic. The purist direct-democratic position that a local community should autonomously decide who has the right, for instance, to live there so as to open a hotel or some other tourism business may sound anything from scary to reasonable depending on the current tourism model of the community, the political views of its members, its internal dynamics, power relationships, conflicting interests, opposing world views, cultural or ethnic backgrounds, inequalities, injustices, irrational hereditary hatreds even, location, infrastructure and so on.
Which types of organisations can we consider as compatible with community ownership in tourism? The easiest answer, but infrequent case, is: a cooperative / worker managed company that has each member as an equal shareholder and where all members share the work burden equally. Other compatible cases: a local family-owned business that has no employees (similar to a worker-managed company, although intra-family exploitation, both gender and age related is another problem), a municipal entreprise (although this also depends on how democratic and devolved a state is, for example there could be discrimination and municipal tourism workers chosen only from a certain political or ethnic pool). Some incompatible but frequent cases: a lodge / small hotel owned by expatriate family that (otherwise prides itself in that it) exclusively hires local people as employees. A larger hotel owned by a larger company that mostly hires local people and uses parts of its profits to fund community projects as part of a 'CSR' policy. Note that the two latter examples would be classified as perfectly acceptable by proponents of 'responsible', 'sustainable' tourism and even community-"based"- tourism who are sold as politically "neutral" (i.e. conservative) in terms of who should own tourism. Another incompatible example, but less frequent nowadays, would be a tourism accommodation owned, managed and micromanaged by a bureaucratic, centralist state that owns everything and dictates everything to the people "on behalf" of the people (a.k.a "actually-existing-socialism" state-capitalism).
In a type of Tourism inspired by ecosocialist & direct-democratic principles, an Ecological and Socially-just Tourism (EST) or Ecosocialist Tourism for short, the means of production (the accommodation facilities) should not be in corporate hands but collectively and democratically owned by society, preferably the local society. There have of course to be checks and balances and a free and independent press - it does not follow that just because something is run by the community everything will be in order, in terms of social justice or ecology or that there will not be operational problems or human conflicts. But it does mean that such conflicts can be jointly and rationally solved.
EST takes the side of the hosts (the tourism owners-producers) in terms of helping them meet their real needs and aspirations. But it also protects the rights of the visitors (the consumers) in delivering a quality product which respects environmental and cultural standards at a fair price (this is a another important topic for future discussion – what should be the optimum level of profits made under EST and how should they be allocated and distributed)
So this is a theory in construction. In practice, even looking at Greece which I am more familiar with, where Tourism is a main pillar of the economy and where Socialism has historically been a potent force and certainly lately, also thanks to the acute economic crisis, we are at least a generation away from successfully developing genuine community-owned destinations, as defined above, beyond some isolated eco-friendly lodge efforts and the few surviving examples of women's agritourism cooperatives that were set up in the 1980s. Phenomena such as couch-surfing, woofing and quality voluntourism, although positive and innovative are not game-changers as they only concern, for the time being at least, a small percentage of tourists and do not require a change in the current socioeconomic framework not undermine its existence – in fact they may be providing a human face for an otherwise pro-capitalist tourism sector.
Capitalism has shown some crumbling signs in the early 21st century, while – in theory – there is immense pressure for socioeconomic change also due to the possibility of catastrophic climate change. Still it is not at all clear if the world (i.e. the majority), and in particular the world of tourism, wishes to, can or will be allowed to, democratically, gradually and peacefully decide to move towards a radical ecosocialist transformation rather than slowly drift towards some greenwashed, consumerist, corporately-socially-responsible (and potentially explosive) dead-end. But unless we are to cancel ourselves, and the ECOCLUB.com network, we must keep assuming, based on scant evidence it must be said, that we can gradually change the world or parts thereof radically while using only legal and peaceful methods and that such a method is EST, especially in countries where tourism is a key sector.
At the same time we should not forget that a broader societal enlightenment may be a pre-requisite so as to encourage the peaceful proliferation of progressive/radical pockets in tourism and beyond. Despite increasing corporate domination and concentration and an ever-intrusive State, the Internet still offers plenty of tools to all those who share similar goals, including the ability to add comments (suggestions, objections) below!