SEATTLE — According to the U.N., income from tourism accounts for five percent of the world’s GDP and around eight percent of jobs. For many countries, tourism is the highest earning export service. Tourism thus presents a key opportunity for the economic empowerment of impoverished people across the globe.
Money spent on vacations to exotic locales such as Thailand, Brazil and the Ivory Coast often finds its way to the hands of low-income families. As more foreign visitors arrive, the local transportation, retail and food industries benefit from increased demand. New jobs in these industries are increasingly accessible to the poor and other disadvantaged groups.
Rwanda, a country torn apart by civil war in 1994, struggled to regain ground economically. In an effort to bounce back from the damage caused by the conflict, the community of Mayange began offering full day tours highlighting its culture and history.
Participants are led by local guides to see important sites from the recent ethnic clashes and speak with farmers and artisans about their crafts. Each visitor pays $60, and 70 percent of the profits go directly to fund development in the community.
In addition to promoting global understanding across cultures, this program also helps transform the lives of Mayange villagers. Mukasinadere, a weaver, was able to buy materials necessary to send her children to school and stave off constant hunger.
The women that prepared food for the tourists were able to acquire an investment of $10,000 to open a restaurant, representing a step forward in gender equality in rural Rwanda.
Tours of local low-income communities often called “slum tourism,” is also becoming popular in Brazil. Due to the Brazilian government’s efforts to expel violent gangs from favelas, these communities have become open for growth. In the face of many infrastructural improvements, such as better roads and free trams, favela residents have started to invite tourists to explore the transformed neighborhoods.
Favelas such as Santa Marta, which sits just below the famous Christ the Redeemer statue, have become a hotspot for celebrities like Beyonce and Madonna. Residents enjoy the increased business that foreigners bring. Underemployed individuals manage to make a living by selling homemade wares to tourists, while others earn their income by serving as guides and translators.
Some luxury hotel chains, such as the Ritz Carlton, also do their part to improve living conditions for the poor. With its Community Footprints program, the Ritz incentivizes its staff to work with local organizations to combat hunger and children’s issues. Even the guests are invited to participate in half-day volunteer projects.
While many major hotel chains claim to put special emphasis in mentoring and training young employees for a future within the company, other analyses indicate that jobs created by the tourism industry are poorly paid and relatively unstable. Tourism also tends to drive up local prices, which may incur additional hardship on low-income families and redistribute wealth back to higher income groups.
The U.N. suggests that both governments and major businesses should include the poor in their plans for growth in the tourism industry. With a focus on accessible employment opportunities, room for new business ventures in low-income communities and continued competition within the industry, poor families can continue to reap the benefits of economic growth from tourism.
– Emiliano Perez