Pro-poor tourism has in the recent decades, received greater interests as more and more focus is on refining the idea of using tourism to target poverty. Pro-poor tourism may find it hard to co-exist within a broader tourism plan. This is due to the fact that most tourism planning does not cater specifically and intentionally to reducing poverty.
Pro-poor tourism, like community-based tourism, is often used to fulfil the main objectives of increasing, promoting and providing improved livelihoods for rural communities. It is potentially capable of empowering local communities and enable them to harness the potential of resources found within those areas where tourism settles in. However, that presents one of the challenges; how to grow tourism and prevent some cultural and heritage-based community projects from destroying places.
It could be hard, if not impossible, for pro-poor tourism to be successful if it is largely planned to fulfil wider tourism objectives. There must be instruments that specifically and intentionally channel the benefits, or create mechanisms to channel the benefits to the poor. One, the meaning of “quality experiences” in the context of pro-poor tourism often do not blend in with that defined in more conventional tourism experiences.
Pro-poor tourism in the Mekong region may possibly be different from that seen and practiced in other places. The specific challenges the poor in the region face could be somehow different from those faced by other places. In the poorer regions of Southeast Asia, like most other places where there are poor communities, one often finds cultural heritage and natural resources being exploited by tourism, leaving the communities with the problem of resource scarcity. Ethical consumption and resource protection thus becomes critical.
Also, for tourism to be pro-poor, practitioners must develop tourism that centres around developmental issues and tourism strategies that can work with developmental solutions. Telfer and Sharpley (2015) stated that pro-poor tourism seeks to achieve greater equity by providing the poorest members with opportunities to benefit from having access to tourist markets, and that all forms of tourism can be made to be pro-poor.
Opening access for the poor, remains to a certain extent, a political decision, and in some cases a challenging situation. Development policies, and the lack of funding and dependency on project management, are a few common reasons for the failures of pro-poor tourism. The uneven (some also say unfair) nature of tourism destination’s spatial distribution, and the unequal nature of tourism development and consumption are two big challenges to overcome if pro-poor tourism is to experience success. Specific local government policies and plans must be targeted at developing such form of tourism. From land use, building height restrictions, licensing and permit to resource extraction laws, actions that threaten the reduction of tourism’s benefits to the poor should be considered.
Related to the above is the issue of the presence of the informal sector, long associated with the poor in a destination. The informal sector and the unskilled must be protected by policies or even regulations that seek to create linkages and include the poor to tourism’s benefits. Policies that create a balance between the need to set standards, structure and quality and the need to include local poor in tourism’s growth will be highly sought after. Additionally, the upskilling of the poor should always take into considerations the reasons for the lack and/or the reluctance and resistance faced.
Infrastructure growth and enhancement is a double-edged sword; enhance facilities and build more infrastructures, and tourists will come. The downside of that, will be mass tourism.
Pro-poor tourism requires the maturing and coming together of stakeholders. According to the ADB (2011), there has been increased development support from various partners for tourism initiatives in the GMS. This potentially represents greater access to the voices that represent the poor, and the potentially better access to understand the needs and constraints faced by the poor.
Tourism, if it is to be used as a developmental tool, must fulfil its multi-disciplinary role of being able to bring solutions to development related needs. The stakeholders must understand how tourism works and how it functions across different places and cultures and how it reacts to forces, both internally and externally.
Knowing how the poor potentially suffers from the trade-offs created by tourism is another important thing. Even pro-poor tourism, whose intentions are to benefit the poor, may create trade-offs for the poor. Infrastructure development, often seen as a positive thing, brings about changes to landscapes, destruction of wildlife habitat, and in some cases a need for relocation of those affected.
Having said all these, there are still potential opportunities to support pro-poor tourism in the Mekong Sub region. According to the ADB (2011), women represents at least half the subregion’s tourism industry workers and hold more than 60% of tourism-related jobs in places like Thailand and Viet Nam (ADB, 2011).
One major theme running through tourism in this region in recent years is responsible tourism. There is great urgency to make tourism more responsible, create more sustainable benefits, while reducing negative impacts. Rhetorically, it sounds nice, but to really make tourism more sustainable or responsible, depends a great deal on how trade-offs are tackled. Trade-offs are often created in pursuits of goals and objectives. The poor are often neglected, or even affected by policies that aim to push towards some grand objectives.
In conclusion, for pro-poor tourism to work however, we must understand and know the intricate details and complexities that will support and deter successful pro-poor tourism strategies. Understanding the developmental issues and needs in the places where the poor are, is fundamental. Tourism strategies in the past often tended to exist in isolation, with little consideration of many factors that can come into interfere with potential successes. For tourism’s benefits to be more widely distributed, stronger and wider linkages between tourism and other industries must be created, with an emphasis on reducing the barriers for the poor. Which probably also means, that there needs to be more emphasis on policies (tourism or non-tourism) that support and encourage the inclusion of tourism’s benefits for the poor.
Asian Development Bank (2011). Greater Mekong Sub region – Tourism Sector Assessment, Strategy, and Road Map. Available on <http://www.gms-eoc.org/uploads/resources/298/attachment/gms-tourism-assessment.pdf> Date of access [Aug 18, 2017].
Telfer, D., J., Department of Tourism Management David J Telfer, Richard Sharpley. (2015). Tourism and Development in the Developing World, Routledge