A ‘host community’ refers to a group of people who share a common identity, such as geographical location, class, and ethnic background. They may also share a special interest, such as a concern about the destruction of native flora and fauna.
The host community provides support services for tourism and may have involvement in its management, but some tourism postulate that the sustainability of the community in a peripheral area tends to decline as tourism intensifies.
According to Murphy (1985), the long-term success of the tourism industry depends upon the acceptance and support of the host community. Therefore, to ensure that ecotourism is able to be maintained, it is essential to ensure the sustainability of both the natural and cultural environments of the destination.
Tourism destinations usually involve a series of separate elements such as landscape, wildlife, specific activities, etc. The people who best know and understand how these elements function, are the people in the host community who are exposed to them o a regular basis.
However, the community is rarely asked by private operators about their vision for the area. Nor have they been traditionally part of the planning process. Decisions relating to the likely impacts on the area are after made by planners who do not understand the intricacies or functions of the host community and local tourism resources.
Consequently, the tourism industry that evolves does not suit community needs or use the resources to their best advantage, thereby creating unnecessary social pressure on the host community.
Clearly, a process is needed whereby direct knowledge edge, experience, and understanding from the community forms the basis for the management of socio-cultural impacts so that these communities can engage in ongoing development and enhancement through tourism.
One avenue that allows this to occur is through socio-cultural planning appraisals, wherein the community itself has direct involvement and thus influences the process and outcomes.
There are a number of reasons why host communities may consider an ecotourism approach to tourism development The main principles or elements of ecotourism are designed to maximize the social benefits of tourism while minimizing the socio-cultural impacts.
Ecotourism can, in an ideal circumstance, provide the following benefits to the host community:
- Increase demand for accommodation houses and food and beverage outlets, and therefore improve viability for new and established hotels, motels, guest houses, farm stays, etc.
- Provide additional revenue to local retail businesses and other services (e.g. medical, banking, car hire, cottage industries, souvenir shops, tourist attractions).
- Increase the market for local products, thereby sustaining traditional customs and practices.
- Use local labor and expertise.
- Provide a source of funding for the protection and maintenance of natural attractions and symbols of cultural heritage.
- Providing funding and volunteers for field work associated with wildlife research and archaeological studies.
- Create a heightened community awareness of the value of local culture and the natural environment.
The information gained from the socio-cultural consultation can also be used by planners to guide decision making in matters such as landscape enhancement, and by the host community to investigate projects they would like to undertake or even operate themselves.
While a planning process at the community level may appear simple in theory, it is complicated by many factors, including conflicting interests among stakeholders and lack of prioritization of resource allocation to areas that people feel need it most. If host communities can be involved in the planning process from the beginning, this can reduce the future likelihood of conflict and misinformation.