Tourism in the Developing World - Beneficial or Exploitative?

Every few months, it seems, there is a flurry of passionate and well-intentioned opinions that question the viability of tourism centered on poor villages, arguing that the benefits to be gained are outweighed by the potential for exploitation of poor people. Some of the rhetoric in this ongoing debate has shed more heat than light on the issue, but let's focus on some real, on-the-ground facts and positive impacts.

In Rwanda, tourism is currently the largest foreign-exchange earner. The majority of revenue comes from wealthy safari tourists in Kenya and Tanzania who jet in for 2-3 days to see Rwanda's legendary mountain gorillas. However, Rwandans recognize that more tourism is needed and that each additional day a tourist spends in country translates into jobs and growth. That's why a tourism cooperative and a small private tour operator decided to establish a full-day village tour in Mayange, just an hour south of Kigali.

Just a few years ago, Mayange would not have been an enjoyable tourist spot: it had been at the epicenter of the genocide, was one of the poorest sectors in the country, and frequently faced famine. Infant mortality was high, the health center was scarcely open, there was no paved road link to Kigali, there was minimal agricultural activity, no electricity, and questionable levels of education. Over the past few years, however, the Government of Rwanda, along with the Millennium Villages Project, has worked with the community to transform the situation. Today, Mayange is thriving to such a degree that land prices in the community have more than tripled. Food is abundant, business is springing up, schools are dramatically improved, and mortality rates have dropped substantially.

That's why the people of Mayange decided their story was one worth telling. The tour they designed focuses on the genocide sites down the road in Nyamata and the environmental, educational, agricultural, business and civil accomplishments cultivated by the community through work with the Millennium Villages project. Tours bring visitors to the villages, where farmers talk to them about agriculture; weavers show off their skills and sell their wares; dancers perform local pieces; and myriad others in the community benefit from interacting with them.

Within Mayange, there are several community cooperatives (including weaving, agriculture, theatre, and others), all of which benefit financially from the visits of interested tourists who want to know more about the community. The community initially decided to partner with a private company to arrange these tours; today, two private companies offer the tour. Community leaders consider tourism as a means of providing not only financial benefits to themselves, but to promote cross-cultural learning and understanding.

The tourism cooperative leaders insisted on a set of ground rules to encourage the community to view the tourists as a source of wealth creation, not of charity. One of their rules - which has actually garnered a surprising amount of publicity - requests that tourists give out no candy, toys, or food (many outside observers incorrectly concluded that this rule was foisted on the community by outside forces). The community, the district, and national government consider handouts to be part of a cycle of behavior that leads rapidly to dependency.

It's a fair question to ask if all community members benefit from these tours. Community members love the tour, enjoy the visitors, and are proud to show off their accomplishments. At the end of each tour, which cost about $60 per visitor, 70% of the money collected is given back to the community and distributed among those who participate directly in the tour. With a large number of visiting tourists and a significant number of tours, this is a major injection of capital into the local economy. To maintain fairness, the cooperative makes sure that the farmers, dancers and other cooperative members who meet with tourists (and thus get the largest share of the profits) rotate with each tour. Everyone benefits.

The life of Mukasinadere, a member of a weaving cooperative, has been completely changed by the tours. Working as a weaver and selling baskets to tourists, she is now able to pay for her family's basic needs. Quite simply, she and her kids now have enough food to eat, but she is also able to buy clothes for her children, including school uniforms. This last piece is crucial - without these uniforms, her children would not be able to attend school.

The weavers, all of whom are women, have benefited from the tours in a way they have never been able to before. In the past in this community, women were completely dependent on their husbands and their meager earnings from subsistence agriculture for money. Now, their weaving cooperatives allow them to earn and spend money independently - a huge step toward a more equitable distribution of wealth and autonomy in the community. Another example of how the tours are helping make gender equality a reality is with the women who provide meals for tourists. This enterprise has been so profitable, and the women have earned so much, the cooperative has invested over $10,000 in a local restaurant, which is slated to open soon.

The bottom line: tourism in Rwanda helps eradicate poverty and hunger. It makes it possible for more children to go to school. It helps bridge the divide between cultures, not deepen it. It leads to more gender equality, not more exploitation. Most importantly, it creates real, sustainable prosperity that is not dependent on charity.

Tourism in general and the Mayange tours in particular are good for economic development. With low barriers to entry, tourism is a great way for developing countries to employ people while increasing their GDP. Tourism as envisioned and initiated by Rwandans should be promoted, not disparaged.