Peter Richards has spent the better part of his professional life working to develop tourism products in Thailand and Myanmar. He shares with us his experiences, triumphs and frustrations and tells us what ingredients are needed to create a successful community-based tourism (CBT) product. As an expert in fostering successful multi-stakeholder relationships, he explains how to create partnerships that defy cultural barriers and political philosophies to create CBT products that are truly beneficial to all involved.
Peter is also the author of MAKE IT COUNT, a new publication by The Travel Foundation and Leeds Beckett University with advice on how outbound tour operators can scale up sales of sustainable tourism products.
- How living in a rural community in Thailand inspired Peter to dedicate his life to responsible travel;
- How multi-stakeholder cooperation helped open up tourism in Myanmar through community-based tourism initiatives;
- The biggest challenges faced in developing community-based tourism and how to overcome them;
- The key to successfully managing multi-stakeholder tourism development projects.
Peter, you first came into contact with the concept of sustainable tourism through your work as Regional Responsible Tourism Coordinator at Intrepid Travel in Southeast Asia (2000-2002). What were your initial impressions of the concept?
Before working with Intrepid, I had worked for a year as an English teacher in a rural village about twenty kilometers outside Chiang Mai, Thailand. I lived on site, in the school. After school, most of the teachers went home. Initially, I felt quite isolated in the school campus. However, the local school staff: cooks, housekeepers and gardeners, began to notice that I was interested in village life. They took me under their wing and invited me to various events, such as temple fairs, house-warming parties, and other interesting events.
When I joined Intrepid as a tour leader, I was eager to share this simple, welcoming side of Thailand, far away from the red light and full moon clichés. Intrepid was one of the first tour operators to have a responsible travel policy. This was a key reason why I applied to join the company. I thought: “Yes, Intrepid wants to share the same Thailand that I do.”
At that time, many international tour leaders worked in SE Asia. Most tour leaders loved the countries where we worked and treasured the local people we met.
Responsible tourism was something very immediate and practical to us. We wanted to solve concrete problems which we saw, such as school children without books or shoes, or ‘hilltribe’ villagers without blankets in the winter. We also took ‘irresponsible behavior’ by tourists quite personally!
Looking back, I still appreciate our raw passion for SE Asia and the efforts which we made. However, in hindsight, our initiatives were often based on partial-understandings and over-simplification. They were ‘Band-Aid solutions’ which did not help to solve problems at their root causes. Under the leadership of Jane Crouch, Intrepid Responsible Tourism (RT) Coordinators began doing more research, consulting with local and international organisations, and supporting initiatives which were being rolled out systematically. Intrepid’s RT now has much greater impact.
My personal highlight as RT coordinator was developing ethnic hill tribe language sheets and training tour guides to help travelers communicate with villagers during trekking trips. Travelers cross the world hoping for authentic, local experiences. Villagers are often interested in meeting travelers. They are also sensitive about how tour guides present their cultures. However, it is not unusual for professional guides to interpret local life on behalf of community members, rather than actively facilitating cultural exchange.
These experiences ignited my interest in community based tourism. Community-based tourism (CBT) prepares communities to welcome guests on their own terms and share their ways of life in their own words.