Community Development and Tourism

San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico, is a thriving community dependent on a variety of economic ventures, including tourism. image: Catalina Ávila LaFrance
San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico, is a thriving community that depends on a variety of economic ventures, including tourism.
image: Catalina Ávila LaFrance

Tourism has a significant impact on much of the world. From the host to the visitor, we are all in one way or another shaped by tourism. While tourism’s positive effects include job creation, poverty alleviation, education, environmental preservation, and cultural exchange, tourism’s negative consequences–crime, loss of cultural identity, environmental degradation, species endangerment, and global warming–have proliferated in the last 30 years.

To counteract tourism’s negative side, we need to discuss what sustainable community development means within communities affected by tourism. Such a discussion must also include the steps that can be taken to ensure that those communities flourish with tourism as one part of a whole, rather than rely solely on tourism. After all, the changes that tourism brings about can be part of any community’s growth into a sustainable community.

So what does sustainable mean, anyway? In landscape architecture it may be defined as using green products and local materials, the physical design of a structure or space, and meeting those ever-changing LEED requirements. With such a broad definition, anything that can be sustained long-term can be considered sustainable.

Sustainable development, as defined by the UN, is “Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This is a loaded statement because it encompasses a number of factors that are left to interpretation. Sustainable development means considering a combination of factors, because the sustainability of individual parts does not necessarily make a sustainable community. Sustainable communities must include all the parts to make it whole:

The parts that make a sustainable community. image: Catalina Ávila LaFrance
What makes a sustainable community
image: Catalina Ávila LaFrance

By bringing together these five components–socio-cultural, environment, aesthetic, function, and economy–a truly sustainable community includes diversity in local and regional transportation, economy, tourism, housing, local services, aesthetic cohesion, a sense of place and identity, and a sense of local ownership.

And what is community development without the community? Hollow development. Community participation provides invaluable information and a better understanding of intrinsic values and community needs. Understanding these will increase the potential for the long-term prosperity of any community. Public meetings will inform residents about the developers’ goals and how their community will be impacted, and while ecological and socioeconomic information can be found independent of community meetings, residents will likely provide a clearer perspective on real issues. Information on historic and culturally significant spaces, including the level of importance of archeological sites to community identity, may also be more useful if gained through dialogue with the community. Community charrettes are an invaluable part of this process, allowing residents to participate, have a hands-on role in the development of their community, and feel empowered. These should be the heart of any new project and the taking-off point for decision-making.

Tourism, along with the multitude of changes it brings to host communities, is a key factor to consider when designing a sustainable community. Without proper planning, communities are often forced to become completely financially dependent on tourism. While tourism can alleviate poverty, people must always have a dependable source of income founded within their community or region. Sole dependence on a tourism economy is damaging to communities and can intensify social and environmental problems, making conditions worse than before the advent of tourism. The fate of many communities is typically up to greedy local jurisdictions and developers, with community members left out of the decision-making process. With improving their local economies as a top priority, governments and local municipalities sometimes allow excessive physical development without first protecting their environment and people. Economic growth is often an important fist step before social advances can be made, but it can also be detrimental without a framework for the protection of ecology and culture. While tourism provides income for local communities, enables positive tourist experiences, and promotes cultural exchange, it may also create economic and cultural hardships for local communities, and is rarely ecologically sensitive.

Hawaii in Mexico? A restaurant at the archeological site of Tulum in Quintana Roo, Mexico, is grossly out of context. image: Catalina Ávila LaFrance
Hawaii in Mexico? A restaurant at the archeological site of Tulum in Quintana Roo, Mexico, is grossly out of context.
image: Catalina Ávila LaFrance

Many coastal environments have suffered from careless development and exploitation of land and water ecosystems and species. Many ancient cultures have been forced into modernity, while world heritage sites have crumbled under the pressure of excessive tourism. The descendants of ancient cultures carry the spirit of their ancestors and hundreds of years of history. We should strive to protect and include them in our changing world. Financial profits and entertainment should not erase the world’s ethnic diversity or exhaust the environment. Instead, modernizing should be an option, education a priority, and change should happen gradually and with community consent.

by Catalina Ávila LaFrance, ASLA, a landscape architect and principal at éSTUDIO landscape architecture.

3 thoughts on “Community Development and Tourism

  1. Kevin Gallagher August 29, 2013 / 1:23 am

    Very impressive Cat!!!
    You’re full of all sorts of surprises. I hope you’re well!

  2. Alicia Avila September 6, 2013 / 7:26 am

    Intriguing. I have never thought about this, what a great perspective!
    Well done Mrs. LaFrance!

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