Tourism provides an opportunity for rural areas to reposition themselves, stem depopulation: Sandra Carvao

Down To Earth speaks with Sandra Carvao from the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), on its unique initiative  

By Rajat Ghai
Published: Saturday 16 September 2023

Alquezar, in the Spanish Autonomous Community and historical region of Aragon, is a UNWTO-recognised Best Tourism Village. Photo: UNWTOAlquezar, in the Spanish Autonomous Community and historical region of Aragon, is a UNWTO-recognised Best Tourism Village. Photo: UNWTO

Urbanisation is a phenomenon that is gripping the world today. The United Nations (UN) calls it “the largest wave of urban growth in history”.

More than half of the world’s population now lives in towns and cities, and by 2030, this number will swell to about 5 billion, according to the UN.

By 2050, about 64 per cent of the developing world and 86 per cent of the developed world will be urbanised.

Much of this urbanisation will unfold in Africa and Asia. This huge transformation will lead to shortages of land, drinking water and many other things in urban areas.

Can the movement of people from rural to urban areas be stopped or even reversed? Can rural areas be prevented from becoming ‘ghost villages’?

There are no easy answers to these questions. But the UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) has started an initiative in 2021 which hopes to work on this issue.

This is the Best Tourism Village Initiative by UNWTO’s Tourism for Rural Development Programme. This initiative is designed to showcase villages where tourism plays a pivotal role in preserving cultures and traditions, celebrating diversity, offering economic opportunities, and safeguarding biodiversity.

Down To Earth spoke with Sandra Carvao, Chief of Tourism Market Intelligence and Competitiveness at UNWTO to understand the initiative. Edited excerpts:

Rajat Ghai (RG): What were the reasons behind the initiation of this scheme by the UNWTO?

Sandra Carvao (SC): Well, a lot of factors came together at the same time.

First, with the evolution of tourism, we at UNWTO (as a UN agency) wanted to ensure that it benefitted communities across countries.

This meant that we needed to work in order to increase demand for tourism across all regions. At the same time, we knew that rural areas face increasing challenges such as depopulation due to a lack of economic opportunities which, in turn, is because connectivity is poorer there than in urban areas.

We put these two factors together and also saw the window of opportunity that tourism could provide to the development of rural areas. That was when we decided to create a specific programme that would utilise tourism for rural development.

The concept of ‘Best Tourism Villages’ was born as a way to bring to light some of the examples from around the world where tourism is being used to protect local culture and environment, provide new opportunities for employment and hopefully retain populations in these areas as well.

This was launched in 2021 as a pilot project. We are still learning because we are in the initial phases of the initiative.

Since we implement this programme through the UNWTO Member States, it is always the ministries of tourism that internally select these villages and then share the names with us.

The initiative is also important because it creates a relationship between the local and national levels (of governance) in a country, which then often leads to more coordination and opportunities.

RG: You mentioned rural depopulation which is a very pertinent issue. Has there been any instance where you were able to stem rural flight in a country with this scheme?

SC: The scheme was announced at the end of 2021. That means we started working with the first group of villages mostly in 2022. It is very early at this stage to evaluate the initiative’s impact on creation of opportunities for development and on fighting depopulation.

What we do see is that villages have reported an increase in interest. There is recognition and the impact in the media has been extremely high.

I was just reading an article in The Guardian the other day on Oman and one of the suggested visits was to one of the best tourism villages.

So, there is this first step of increased recognition and media exposure.

However, to say that the nomination of a village has led to a decrease in depopulation — we are still very early in the scheme to see that impact. That is something which will take its own time.

RG: You mentioned exposure, which brings me to my next question. Exposure can often have a negative side as well. How will this scheme factor in sustainable tourism?

SC: The villages are evaluated based on nine areas. These nine areas are aligned with the United Nations-mandated Sustainable Development Goals which cover issues of economic, social and environmental sustainability.

For a village to be recognised, it should have a series of activities that promote the integration of the population in the value chain of tourism and preserve culture and natural resources.

That is like a baseline.

We work with villages to ensure that their carrying capacity is kept. We make sure that while they get more exposure, they are also aware that they need to have in place the mechanisms to address that extra exposure.

But for us, it has been very rewarding to see that all villages have had very positive reporting so far.

RG: Could you describe some memorable instances regarding all that you have learnt so far during the implementation of this scheme?

SC: This scheme actually has three levels. Besides the best tourism villages which are recognised, we have what we call an ‘Upgrade Programme’.

We work with villages that have not been recognised to improve some of the areas where they have scored lower.

We dedicate specific mentors who sit down with the authorities of such villages and analyse their development issues and support them.

This is how all villages, both network and upgrade, come together in a community. It does not end with the recognition of a village.

For example, one of the villages in Italy just had its festivities in the summer and it invited the representatives of other villages to join.

This is very interesting because there is a sense of community and an exchange of ideas and opportunities between them. It would otherwise be very difficult for a village in India, China or Korea to actually be in contact with a village in Switzerland or Latin America.

Such interactions can also have many spinoff effects.

For example, I know that India launched a Best Tourism Villages initiative nationally as well. In Japan, the villages that are part of the scheme are working together as well. They have created their own national coordination community with universities.

Some universities are also helping them in Europe. A lot of them are coming together to see if they can present joint projects for European funding.

Thus, there are a lot of effects that we don’t see directly. But the UNWTO’s initiative is creating movement and opportunities for villages. And that is very rewarding.

RG: What mechanism exists in the scheme so that the benefits can accrue to village residents and communities?

SC: Under the Upgrade Programme, we meet with village representatives as well as with representatives of other stakeholders who might be important in the village.

Our teams organise some kind of online training every month in which not only the village representative is invited, but anyone from the village who wants to attend can do so.

This week, for instance, we had a meeting with representatives of a big tour operator that works in rural areas. We guided them about what kind of issues they would need to keep in mind if they want to be part of a network of operators and want to be featured.

RG: What do you see in store for the world’s rural areas in the future?

SC: Well, I think urbanisation and human migration because of it is unstoppable. We cannot stop that movement because it is impossible. But we can, maybe, slow it down in some areas.

In that sense, the change that we have had in technology has made a huge difference.

Working remotely can actually have a huge impact. You can work, especially if you are an independent worker, from anywhere and it is more interesting for some people to actually be located in a smaller place with a better quality of life.

The challenge will very much be to support those areas in terms of infrastructure, especially digital.

We see that even in developed countries, internet penetration and digital connectivity in many rural areas is much lower than in urban areas.

That will be an obstacle for businesses, for people who want to work remotely. Infrastructure of connectivity and services, healthcare and education is key.

But at the same time, we are now seeing people wanting to go to more authentic places, look for different experiences and disconnect mentally and physically.

I think in that sense, rural areas have an opportunity to position themselves. But they should not massively expose themselves. Rather, they should have businesses which are beneficial for the community and at the same time, bring income.

We see many people even going back and building their own businesses in rural areas these days and a lot of them are in tourism.

RG: Self-reliant rural areas, right?

SC: Exactly. I think we have seen things being valued in many places where they were not earlier. For instance, agricultural products, wool and other materials. People are beginning to look into issues of sustainability and conscious consumption as well.

So, there is a lot of changes in society that will favour such a transformation.

I obviously don’t see this stopping urbanisation. But there is an opportunity in tourism. Rural infrastructure and houses can help people connect with producers, agriculture and nature. So definitely, I see there is an opportunity to revitalise some of those areas.

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