The Power Of Storytelling and Community Development Through Tourism
The Initial Seeds
My journey in sustainable tourism started on the other side of the ocean from where I was born – but it didn’t start in tourism.
It began in 2005 among the communities of the north-eastern coast of Brazil, while engaging in training sessions and fervid discussions on environmental sustainability, human and social rights, and above all, on reappropriation of the local territory through sustainable development and the self-empowerment of the younger generation.
Those were the first seeds, but it was not until I reached Rio de Janeiro, and the slums in the southern part of this marvellous city, that I came to realise that Community-Based Tourism (CBT) was what I wanted to focus on.
Thanks to those small but powerful projects, designed and managed directly by local communities, I realised the potential that tourism can have in realising truly sustainable, alternative visions. My vision of the tourism industry suddenly changed thanks to the passion of those women and men that were constantly reaffirming their identity, while protecting their land and conserving their culture and traditions.
From 2007, through the CBT projects that I encountered in Brazil, tourism, in my eyes, became a vehicle for sustainable development because the people were holding the reins. It was then that I silently answered my calling to become a community storyteller, but a decade needed to pass before I would become fully aware of that myself.
The Future Of Tourism
I personally believe that regardless of the intense efforts that the industry seems determined to undertake to keep moving toward sustainability, we won’t progress systemically unless we are ready to include other narratives in the picture.
I am referring, first and foremost, to the voices of the local communities, the ones primarily affected by the unsustainable weight of an industry which can move, unaware of its impact. But, I am also referring to the voices of the universe of community experiences that are so intrinsically linked to the territory because they are genetically part of it.
These experiences usually rise up from the ground, from the culture and the local traditions, from the ancestral knowledge of the land and its natural rhythms. They also rise from the joy that people have in sharing those stories with the world, and from the hope of maintaining their identity through the process.
However, over time, I developed some intense frustrations: these community and local cultural experiences are usually the most invisible, the ones that struggle to be seen. The reasons are varied, but it all boils down to an endemic lack of adequate marketing skills and market access. I love telling stories and I have chosen to share those invisible grassroots stories because I can see the value that they represent for the people that live in them, for our planet and for us as humanity.
If we agree that sustainability also means inclusion, we cannot expect to create a better tourism sector if we are not open to welcoming local perspectives. These are important not only because they enrich the tourists’ experience by teaching them about other worlds and lifestyles; more crucially, these stories – and their protagonists – are also the key to the local sustainable solutions that we have not always incorporated into our way of operating.
These are mainly stories of local resilience and adaptation to climate change, of cultural transformation and women empowerment, stories of social innovation, regenerative relations with nature and wildlife, slow travel and meaningful encounters.
These are the important stories that we risk losing.
The Milestones Of My Journey
After moving to London from Rio de Janeiro in 2010, my motivation to share those important stories grew exponentially stronger thanks to a series of coincidences. Probably the first was an unexpected invitation to publish the research conducted in the carioca slums between 2007 and 2009 –which had shown me the potential of tourism done by the community – and to turn it into a book.
Obtaining the Professional Certificate in Sustainable Tourism as part of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) training course in 2017 was the opportunity that I needed to re-enter the world I had left behind in Brazil a few years back, after the completion of my studies and the field research at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.
More importantly, it gave me the opportunity to participate in the following edition of the same GSTC Sustainable Tourism Course in November 2017, this time as a guest presenter, to share, for the first time on an international stage, the grassroots story of one of the CBT projects I had been involved with in Brazil. To talk about the community benefits and the socioeconomic impacts of the Museu de Favela – MUF helped me to further establish my path, and although I had already started writing those stories in English for Tourism Concern, I was finally discovering myself as a community storyteller.
Although I had already started writing for Equality in Tourism and others, and my blog Traveller Storyteller had already been launched at that time, the real opportunity for me was represented by the COVID pandemic. A few months away from a three-month trip to Chile and Brazil, planned in collaboration with two local tour operators, to visit local communities and gather their untold stories to invite more responsible tourists to visit them, I found myself stuck at home with nowhere to go and a new Zoom subscription to use.
In the first year of the pandemic I felt strangely liberated, gifted with the astonishing present of infinite time and where space had stopped being a limitation. Armed with a strong internet connection, I was finally able to reach remote locations in the valleys of Brazil or the peaks of Peru, but also the mountains of Rwanda, and the coasts of the Maldives.
The goal was always the same: to reach those untold stories and share them with the rest of the world now that it was standing still, listening. This is when the Destination Community campaign and The Postcard Series were born. And it was then that I decided to use community storytelling – storytelling intrinsically designed with communities – to create new ethical marketing tools that could incorporate the value of those stories and share the message in a more effective and direct way with prospective visitors.
Challenges and Successes
Amongst the biggest challenges I encountered, and still encounter, is the overall resistance to expand the lens of travel marketing to include new narratives from the grassroots perspective. I don’t believe that this is due to bad intentions – I think it is rather the burden of a conservative approach and the defensive reaction to changing established and familiar practices.
For many years I shared my stories timidly because of the fear of not finding the appropriate ears or an appropriate stage. Until they were finally liberated. And the funny thing is, as soon as I started building my own stages, I realised that many voices were coming out from different, hidden corners of the globe.
It seems that the pandemic – that time when many actors in our sector (companies as well as individuals) were forced to reset – gave me and many others the strength, or perhaps just the opportunity, to share the stories we had the privilege to encounter, in a louder voice.
And this is a collective success that we should celebrate and use to inspire more change and more sharing, from the grassroots level upwards.
Elisa Spampinato is a travel writer with a great passion and years of experience in Community-Based Tourism. She is an internationally recognised and qualified Sustainable Tourism professional.
She focuses on rediscovering the roots and the soul of a tourism destination through the stories of its communities. She supports local tour operators with communication and marketing services, while helping strengthen their connection with local communities and improving their positive impacts at the grassroots level.