The use of Mayan rainforests for ecotourism development: an empowerment approach for local communities

Mendoza Ramos, Adrian (2012) The use of Mayan rainforests for ecotourism development: an empowerment approach for local communities. PhD thesis, James Cook University.

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Abstract

Scholars who have addressed issues related to community-based ecotourism have observed that the top-down approach to ecotourism development has often resulted in communities having limited power to have their voice heard or exercise choice in its implementation. Using an empowerment approach to community-based ecotourism this thesis investigated the ability of ecotourism to act as an agent for empowerment. The study looks at a possible role for ecotourism to act as an empowering activity in three communities in the Mayan rainforest of Mesoamerica in terms of economic, psychological, social, political, and environmental gains. In a parallel manner, internal and external participation from ecotourism stakeholders was assessed in each study setting, as they are important agents in empowering communities to engage in ecotourism. Indicators of empowerment were identified from the literature and used to develop three research instruments used over three stages based on qualitative research methods.

Stage one centered on conducting face-to-face semi‐structured interviews with a range of actors including tour operators, government officials, representatives from NGOs and leader members of each community. Stage two consisted of focus groups with villagers from the three communities. From the results of stages one and two a comprehensive list of empowerment indicators was developed using feedback from participants. In the third stage the level of empowerment in each community was assessed using a list of 60 criteria developed in the first two stages.

This thesis introduces the wheel of empowerment to visually portray the level of ecotourism empowerment in a given community. The results showed that only one of the three communities exhibited a positive trend towards ecotourism empowerment. In the other two study settings, results indicated a trend towards disempowerment due to a lack of tourism activity on-site and the associated lack of power influenced from outside the community, but also from inside. This latter finding contests previous assumptions that communities may be considered as homogenous groups where individuals think and act in the same way. One of the interesting findings was that both disempowered communities were located next to a World Heritage Site and protected natural area, but lacked tourists, tourism services, and access to the community by paved road. It appeared from this study that although government is a necessary stakeholder by providing legislation and resources and implementing policies that foster ecotourism development, the private sector through its ability to connect guests and hosts is paramount. As this study shown, empowerment in ecotourism cannot be achieved in the absence of tourists and therefore, ecotourism needs to be practical and not just theoretical if local communities are to become empowered through ecotourism. Although virtually no assistance has been provided by NGOs in two of the three communities studied, the third has participated with NGO programs for more than a decade. In that community ecotourism was not on NGO agendas until recently when several NGOs began to cover this gap through knowledge transfer about ecotourism to the community.

This research should be of assistance to local and multinational NGOs wishing to promote sustainable development and ecotourism projects. Additionally, it should help in guiding the governments of Mexico and Guatemala to foster ecotourism in the Mayan rainforest with local communities. Moreover, this research has the potential to establish a reference point for tour operators interested in promoting community-based ecotourism development. Finally, this research has built on previous research and provides a new technique for assessing empowerment particularly at community level. This study has covered a gap in the literature on community-based tourism in which empowerment has been addressed in a way that failed to provide an instrument to assess the level of empowerment in ecotourism. In this research, a checklist of indicators based on an empowerment framework helped to develop a wheel of empowerment, which visually portrays the level of empowerment in a given community.

Item ID: 31253
Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Keywords: community-based ecotourism; empowerment approach; empowerment indicators; Mayan rainforest; Mesoamerica; sustainable development
Date Deposited: 27 Feb 2014 00:08
FoR Codes: 15 COMMERCE, MANAGEMENT, TOURISM AND SERVICES > 1506 Tourism > 150699 Tourism not elsewhere classified @ 100%
SEO Codes: 90 COMMERCIAL SERVICES AND TOURISM > 9003 Tourism > 900302 Socio-Cultural Issues in Tourism @ 50%
97 EXPANDING KNOWLEDGE > 970115 Expanding Knowledge in Commerce, Management, Tourism and Services @ 50%
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