Community Based Tourism (CBT) claims to be socially sustainable tourism, emphasizing community well-being over individual profit, supporting local development. Well, I have been a customer of CBT, and have been talking with other tourists who also used their services. The reality opens to a different perspective…
CBT offices are like tourist information centres and travel agencies. In some places, they are the only source of information, as there is no any official tourist information centre. This is surprisingly the case in Bishkek…
I tried those of Karakol and Kochkor, Kyrgyzstan. Centraly located and well signed, they were very easy to find. They had very comprehensive information and helpful English speaking staff. In Karakol I could by a map, but in Kochkor, they had one on the wall, but none to sell. And they don’t allow to take pictures, so If you plan to hike around Kochkor to the Som Kul or Kul Ukok lakes, buy a map in Bishkek!
With CBT you can book all local activities provided by local businesses or people: transport, excursions (horseback riding, guides and porters), accommodation (homestays, yurtstays); and they also offer equipment rental (tents, shoes, bags…)
Many tourists and travellers, if not everyone, use the CBT services. All customers I talked to were pretty satisfied but were a little surprised with prices. They were indeed pretty high.
I am just going to relate my own experience here as it’s simple but explicit enough.
When trekking to lake Kul Ukok I stayed overnight in a yurt. It cost me 400 SOM for the night + 100 SOM for breakfast + 250 SOM for dinner. Total 750 SOM. Usually prices in towns and cities are 320+100+200 for the same services. Total 620 SOM. The total bill in a yurt already exceeds by 130 SOM (2 euros, but more than 20%) the bill in a city for a half board overnight in a hostel, homestay or guesthouse. As a matter of transparency, the CBT explains that 15% of the bill is given to CBT to contribute to the service and pay for local taxes. The remaining 85% goes into the pocket of the family.
You could think that the bill being higher is acceptable due to the remoteness of the location, and the exceptional aspect of staying overnight in a wilder environment. But let’s take a moment to look closer at the implications of having one traveller staying overnight, and leaving behind 750 SOM in cash.
Here’s the context. Nomadic people live in yurts around the lake. This is their normal summer habitat. They are not tourist infrastructures, nor tourist professionals or employees. They are a family, the yurt is their home, they have an occupation and a business. In my case, my hosting family were one woman and her three kids: two teenager daughters and one son aged nine. They keep livestock including cattle, sheep, goats, horses. They produce milk in large quantities. They sell animals, meat, and dairy products on local markets. This is how they make a living.
When I visited, they made a bed up for me with shyrdaks (mattress), sheets and blankets. Charged 400 SOM. The mum cook slightly more food. For 5 pople instead of usualy 4, that’s about 25% more to fill my plate. The menu was tomato and cucumber salad, and baked potatoes. Charged 250 SOM. It sure was filling, and I went to bed. In the morning I was served porridge, there was tea, biscuits, bread and jam. Charged 100 SOM. Not really filling, and after a day hiking and before another one, it certainly lacks essential ingredients: no proteins, no vitamins. Not enough fruits, meats and dairy products. I hadn’t slept well because of the weight of the blankets, the smell in the yurt, I suspect I was also subjected to altitude sickness. Malnourished and not rested, I had to start another day walking 8 hours (which I admit slightly underestimating).
So I was not really satisfied, and because of the high price I walked away with the slight sensation of having been ripped off…
Don’t get me wrong here. I can afford it, and I paid the amount I was asked, but this is not my point. I think the profit made by the family is disproportionate.
This very family made a lot of money just at once, and this money is not going to be split or will not circulate into the community. The food I was served was their regular meal – which I was happy to share – but they didn’t buy anything out of the ordinary from other people around (the community). It was food from the market or that they grew somewhere else (they don’t grow anything around the yurt, nothing grows there).
It didn’t have any direct local impact, and I doubt it will have any in the long term as they are more likely to spend this money to buy a mobile phone, a car… They might also spend it for their kids education or health. Good for them. But again, this is out of proportion. This big profit they made enriches the family and is then sent outside the local community. My hosts got richer, their neighbours are just watching.
Other travellers have reported a better diet, including more meat and a greater variety, but agreeg with my views. Also, we have noticed that those local population, eventhough (supposedly) involved into an effort towards the community or the environement weren’t any more careful of the environement: burning their wastes including plastic bottles, dumping dirty waters with washing liquids and soap into streams and lakes…
My point is: what is the difference with a regular local tour company? The local tour company is also a local initiative, employing locals, cooperating with other local businesses. No more, no less than CBT.
The Community Based Tourism appellation is just a name. It’s just marketing. Those local tour companies advertise with arguments that seduce travellers in the region: mostly backpackers with an environment friendly sensibility, but with a lot of money anyway!
This is deceitful marketing, this is bullshit, this is greenwashing.