Livelihood diversification has become an important issue in rural areas for farmer organizations, donors and developing countries governments. Not surprisingly, since global surveys suggest that non-farmer sources account for 30-45% of average rural household income with the majority coming from local rural sources rather than urban migration . One popular non-farm sector, both in rural areas in developing as in western countries – is tourism development. Rural tourism has potential to combine economic development and acknowledgment of rural qualities.
Linking agriculture and tourism
There are several alternatives for farmers and their organizations to get engaged with tourism. For instance, farmers can – next to their agricultural activities – provide accommodation or excursions. In this case the farmer is transformed into a rural tourism entrepreneur. Another option is that farmers deliver their products – food, fruits, crafts and curios – to the tourism economy. In this case, farmers are suppliers of goods to the tourism sector, an activity much closer to their original core business. A distinguishing feature of rural tourism is to give the visitor a personalized experience, a taste of the physical, cultural and human environment of the countryside and as far as possible allow them to participate in activities, lifestyles and traditions of local communities .
Low involvement of farmer organizations: various factors and actors involved
Entering new non-farm sectors is often accompanied with barriers and patterns of inequality. In many developing countries the role of rural member based organizations in tourism development has yet to be recognized.
The low involvement of farmer organizations (FOs: rural producer organization, cooperatives, rural women organization) relates to their unawareness about the potential of rural tourism. Secondly, a lack of resources, experience and knowledge and the inability to harvest those, restrain FOs from accessing the tourism industry . Thirdly, a lack of capitalization of experiences and documentation of successful models of cooperative tourism restrain FOs as well as those supporting them in their efforts to diversify.
The low participation of FOs in rural tourism is not only due to reasons related to the FOs itself. In general, direct support to FOs has long been and still is a neglected aspect in development cooperation. Furthermore, tourism stakeholders didn’t consider FOs to be optional partners in tourism development. The fact that many farmers are geographically isolated from tourist areas and have little negotiation power, are other factors explaining the low involvement.
However when farmers are organized in organizations, they increase their political or commercial voice and possibilities to link with and opening up sectors unfamiliar to them.
Farmer organizations: key actors that need more attention for tourism development
However, over the last decade the recognition of FOs as partners in tourism development is growing. Additional to that tendency, FOs in developing counties are increasingly aware of the opportunities rural tourism can offer them.
Besides, creating additional income and employment, tourism development may improve the social well being in rural areas in a broad sense, for example by stimulating improvements in infrastructure, sanitary and electricity networks. Various Dutch development organizations such as Netherlands Development Organization (SNV), ICCO, Agriterra and Solidaridad are – each with their own strategy and practices – facilitating the creation of linkages between FOs and tourism, which were lacking before.
Although tourism development with FOs goes along with its challenges, there are several reasons advocating for increased inclusion of. Through the broad network and social structures that FOs already have throughout a region, they make the countryside better accessible for tourism developments. It places them in the position to uncover interesting locations as well as to identify suitable rural entrepreneurs. Tour operators don’t have such links.
By working with FOs, tourism development in rural areas, will benefit not only individuals, but can become advantageous for a whole community. Additionally, it can contribute to financial sustainability of FOs. Finally, farmers can offer a unique authentic product to tourists; the countryside, their way of living and their products. Tourists become are becoming increasingly interested in authentic and of-the-beaten-track experiences.
Agriterra and tourism: point of view of an NGO supporting FOs
Since 2005, rural tourism is embraced within Agriterra as a solution for economic diversification, poverty reduction and maintenance of local know-how, cultural life and heritage.
Currently ten partner organizations (Latin America, Asia and Africa) have started an agrotourism initiative (www.viaterra.org). Some initiatives are already receiving tourists, others are still implementing. Examples of agritourism products developed by Agriterra partners are overnight stays in home stays or community lodges or tours (coffee or tea tour).
Until now Agriterra has most experience in supporting FOs in developing rural tourism products. Less experience is developed in integrating rural producers within tourism sector through so-called ‘backward linkages’ (connection between an industry and its suppliers): farmers supply the tourism sector (hotels, restaurants) with their goods. Construction of such links is complex, but investment, training and education needs are considerable lower. Agriterra offers several services to FOs who are interested in tourism.
The tourism program of Agriterra aims to be outstanding in its focus on FOs and a businesslike approach. This business like approach is reflected in various aspects.
First, by stimulating to include market partners from the start. Tour operators can be involved in the identification of a location as well as in product development. What product will be most feasible and potential at a certain spot? Secondly, a strong focus on business planning is stimulated. Furthermore much attention is paid on marketing, whereas marketing appears to be one of the main challenges. Fourth, when a business plan appears to have potential, the farmers involved need to invest themselves in the venture in order to create commitment and stimulate an entrepreneurial attitude, that is, to take in account the professional and economic condition in order to develop appropriate and not to risky activities.
Preferably a micro-finance institute, bank or credit agency is involved. Because tourism is such a different sector for many farmers, intensive precaution in guidance is needed in order to develop a successful tourism initiative and to prevent farmers from bad experiences. When a FO seeks to start an initiative, from agriterra’s point of view, the organization needs to present genuine interest for enrolling in tourism and have the capacity to do so.
Challenges: tourism activities that generate incomes for farmers
Although rural tourism development can certainly contribute to economic development in rural areas, it isn’t a panacea for poverty reduction. When potential for rural tourism development appears to be present, success of the initiative depends on many aspects, such as product quality, the capacity of the organization, marketing and location of the venture.
Furthermore, the nature of the tourism industry is opportunistic, unpredictable and seasonal, therefore rural tourism needs to be approached as something additional to the agricultural activities of farmers. To become competitive, a FO needs to develop a commercial viable product, which is challenging. Adequate product development needs structural guidance from tourism professionals in order to comply with Western tourism standards. Furthermore intensive training of the people involved – tour guides, cooks, home stay owners, etc – in the various aspects of tourism management and reception is crucial, but often lacking. In turn, marketing and promotion of the tourism initiative appears to be one of the bottlenecks.
Another challenge is obtaining insight in the level of returns compared to its investments. Only few cost-benefits studies have been done in this sector. Since FOs are rather new actors in rural tourism, there isn’t an extensive body of knowledge generated this arena. Agriterra aims to contribute in capitalizing best practices and successful models of cooperative tourism for integrating FOs in the tourism sector.