Rural tourism encompasses all tourist activities and recreational experiences that occur in non-urban, populated areas. It offers opportunities for tourists to experience people, events, culture, cuisine and crafts that are not available in cities and larger towns. The concept may be considered to be an off-shoot of Ecotourism - travel that is mindful of the impact it has upon the environment and culture of the destination visited. The year 2002 was declared the International Year of Ecotourism (IYE) by the World Tourism Organisation (WTO) and the United nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
The WTO has rated Rural Tourism as one of the fastest growing segments in the tourism industry, with an annual growth of 5 per cent worldwide and representing 6 per cent of the world GDP.
Benefits to Village Communities
The benefits of rural tourism to local communities are mainly financial, for tourist enterprises offer a viable additional income, if not an alternative, to farming. This is especially true for mountainous regions or deserts where farming is not always very lucrative. In fact, analyses of rural tourism initiatives worldwide indicate that they have benefited some of the poorest countries like Nepal, India and several African nations.
Village crafts people could also benefit from Rural Tourism by increased sales of crafts. For example in India, one of the places developed as a rural tourism destination is Hodka in Gujarat, which is well known for its fine handicrafts. The tour package for Hodka includes visits to crafts villages which would educate visitors about the handicraft as well as offer them the opportunity to buy it.
Opportunities for the Rural Tourist
There are many different ways to enjoy rural tourism, depending on the inclination of the traveller. While some tourists view village holidays simply as a chance to enjoy a slower pace of life in small rural hotels or homestays, others see it as `cultural tourism’ – wherein they get to experience village culture, cuisines and crafts up close. For those more physically inclined, rural tourism also offers endless opportunities for rafting, horse riding, diving, mountain biking.
Dos and Don'ts for the Conscious Rural Traveller
It is important for the traveller to keep in mind the fact that unlike more cosmopolitan city dwellers, villagers are less likely to be aware of cultures other than their own. Therefore, some basic guidelines must be followed to avoid clashes and misunderstandings.
- First, be mindful of people’s privacy. In rural communities, wait until you are invited to approach homes or groups of people.
- Second, be respectful of restrictions and cultural norms. Some communities may be closed to visitors. Natural attractions might be off limits for cultural or environmental reasons. Some religious places may require certain types of clothing. Other cultures may frown upon public displays of affection. When in doubt, ask first.
- Third, be respectful of indigenous people. Acknowledge traditional land owners. Learn how to greet and thank locals in their own language. Recognise the connection that aboriginal and indigenous communities have to the land and you'll learn to see the world differently.
- Patronise local establishments. Contribute meaningfully to the local economy by using local transport, eating local food and staying in indigenously owned hotels or home stays.
- Buy local crafts. Demonstrate your support for local culture further by buying from local craftsmen. This could cut as many as forty steps in the traditional export chain and benefit them directly.
How to Rate the Tourist Potential of a Village
There are unknown and untapped Rural Tourism opportunities all over the world. Here is a rough guide to determine the tourism potential of any given village or rural area.
1. It should have a couple of attractions worth visiting.
2. The local community should be willing to extend hospitality to tourists.
3. The village/region should have a reasonable infrastructure (transport, water, power, rooms) to accommodate a seasonal influx of tourists.
4. Accessibility also determines how popular a place could become. For instance, villages near existing tourist destinations have a greater chance of becoming successful tourist destinations compared to those that are remote and inaccessible.
Critics of rural tourism point out that planners across the world are now using this concept as a magic wand to stop rural decay. However, as of now, Rural Tourism may best be viewed as a source of supplementary income, not as a substitute for other forms of village livelihoods. It can certainly not be expected to stem the outflow of migrant workers from villages into the city.
Also, its very nature necessitates the development of tourism infrastructure and facilities in environmentally fragile and sensitive areas. Many environmentalists believe that the rate with which it is growing today, Eco Tourism may prove to be its own worst enemy – causing many hitherto unspoilt areas to get what ecologists call `loved to death’.
- Getting the Lion's Share from Tourism: Private Sector-community Partnerships, Dilys Roe, Maryanne Grieg-Gran, Wouter Schalken, 2001, published by IIED, NACOBTA
- Details on Rural Tourism in India
- More on Rural Tourism in Europe
- Photo group on rural tourism, visit Flickr Group on Rural Tourism