Tourism and Development of Collective Welfare

Achieving Wisdom Through Helping One Another: Small Steps Leading To Tomorrow's Sustainability

Antonio Rivas, a community tourism and development specialist, shares his journey working in the academic sector exploring sustainable tourism principles and concepts, and becoming immersed in local community initiatives aimed at enhancing collective welfare and strengthening local cultural identity.
Antonio Rivas
Antonio Rivas

Senior Mentor in community and rural sustainable tourism

A way of life that years later I came to know as sustainability

I grew up in a valley surrounded by mountains, in a small town whose cultural identity is still marked by the harmony among its inhabitants and between them and their environment.

Other than home, school was the space that allowed me to understand and practice a respectful coexistence with my peers and with nature. In addition, I was fortunate because school activities forged my desire to explore and experience the socio-cultural heritage of remote communities in the Venezuelan Andes; with collective welfare being a common factor in all of them.

Agricultural work in each village has always been managed with moderation and respect for the land, thus guaranteeing for generations that resources are not scarce and that the quality of life is within everyone's reach. It was undoubtedly my first approach to what I later came to know as “sustainability”.

With the maturity forged by my experiences, I came to the conclusion that it was not enough to observe and learn, I had to contribute to my land and its people. I decided to study social sciences and obtain the tools to make a positive impact.

Working with tourism: An approach of what to do, and how to do it, in order to achieve general welfare

The university was the space for a fruitful relationship with academia and discernment, but it was especially conducive to encounters with farmers, fishers, and indigenous communities with unique social contexts and a clear vision to strengthen their genuine cultural identity.

The first contacts were cautious, as I did not want to make mistakes that would irremediably affect the inhabitants. The continuous teaching orientation served to apply simple and effective guidelines, which I continue to use in my professional stage; among them:

  • Interact with respect in particular socio-cultural contexts, avoiding prejudices.
  • Communicate clearly and naturally, without academic terms that create confusion and frustration among those who don’t share academic contexts.
  • Listen attentively and respectfully to the ideas and proposals of the community, acknowledging that they know their environment and the strategies to obtain good results.
  • Achieve fair integration without discrimination and act as a mediator in the face of possible local disagreements.

During my studies I came to believe that to obtain a comprehensive knowledge of rural populations it is vital to build equal relationships with them, owning a sense of belonging to their achievements and failures, without undermining the need for genuine and fair-minded exchanges. And such relationships would be key to the success of individual and collective initiatives.

A trip to the Piaroa indigenous community of Raudal de Dantos (Venezuelan Amazon) confirmed this assumption for me. For this trip, I not only worked with the Piaroa people as hosts, but ensured their engagement and leadership in planning and management of our visit.

By consensus and without differentiating by gender or age, they assigned tasks and responsibilities, with each member assuming their role with commitment. There was a strong sense of synergy and pride in their ancestral knowledge, which manifested in the stories, the food, and the integration of visitors in ceremonies featuring the wisdom and philosophy of the Pemón cosmogony.

A portion of the money raised from the visit was used to improve the local school, the community hall and the health center; the rest was distributed equally among the inhabitants. All this work showed that in order to achieve common goals, community members must be empowered both to contribute ideas, and to contribute to the collective efforts.

Tourism and development: cautionary advice to tourism professional

The university degree as a Tourism Technician was a step to develop strategies of positive contribution to the environment. I had to transcend, and considered pertinent to get involved professionally with organizations that promote sustainable and responsible tourism, as an alternative for community development.

In 2003 I participated in the multidisciplinary team of an NGO focused on the Andes and the Venezuelan Amazon. This development project had resulted from discussions of the national coexistence guidelines established by the communities themselves in favor of the promotion and perpetuation of their way of life.

Its management was based on diagnostics with rural communities, to determine the feasibility of using their traditional productive systems and their socio-cultural identity as a distinctive feature in human encounters with nationals and foreigners. Learning was progressive, ethics and values of respect for the natural and human heritage always prevailed and the work was carried out smoothly thanks to the collaboration between community and government entities.

At the same time, I continued with my studies of specialization in tourism, to debate with colleagues on the trends of sustainable development and its applicability in traditional fields of the sector, especially in urban areas that did not focus their offer on natural heritage. Balancing the learning from the academy and the professional field, I concluded that we sometimes made the mistake of proposing tourism as the only alternative for development.

The priority of the communities is to strengthen their cultural identity as well as their traditional productive systems with sustainability and responsibility guidelines. Exposing themselves to visitors in order to obtain economic resources can only serve as the means to achieve such aims, if that is indeed the desired path identified by the communities, and if there are sufficient resources and capacities to ensure proper management.

Poorly managed tourism creates dependency, and can lead to the opposite of strengthening local cultural identity.

In-depth knowledge of the communities to manage their own development

In 2010 I settled in Panama, where I found a perfect scenario to promote sustainability and accountability guidelines, as some rural communities lacked public support to develop with equity, justice and impartiality.

"Working with the Wounaan Indigenous Community in Eastern Panama"
Working with the Wounaan Indigenous Community in Eastern Panama

As an expert in development programs in territories with rich natural and socio-cultural heritage, I perceived discordance in planning, since some public entities were unaware of the theoretical basis of sustainability applied to tourism and related activities.

In 2017 I was part of the Technical Committee that developed the Standard Technical Norms for Sustainability in the tourism sector, based on the GSTC (Global Sustainable Tourism Council) methodological tools. These were the product of the synergy of both the government and the private sector, associations, community groups, as well as academic and scientific organizations.

Professionally, I was able to experience the willingness and excellent disposition of indigenous women and youth to guarantee development in their communities. They have been protagonists since the beginning and proudly promote their approach to tourism and development to the new generations.
A valuable lesson was to experience how decisive it is to bring together the initiatives of all the key actors of Panamanian society, as well as to respect their positions, always in favor of promoting and strengthening collective sovereignty.



Antonio-RivasFor more than 30 years, Antonio has been: interpreter guide, professor, planner and consultant in community and sustainable projects. In Venezuela he worked in the Pemón and Michiruy Tourism Project. Additionally, he was the assistant of the Deputy Director of Competitiveness and Tourism Quality in the Municipal Tourism of Acapulco (Mexico). In 2021 he was involved in the project: "Regenerative tourism strategy to build strong and resilient communities in Panama" promoting effective synergy between all social actors.