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Empowering Communities: The Transformative Impact of the Best Tourism Villages Initiative

By Melissa Tilling, Editor

Editor of Sustainable Journeys, Melissa is a social-enterprise entrepreneur and TTG sustainability ambassador.

The Best Tourism Villages initiative by UN Tourism, formerly known as the World Tourism Organization, is a significant step in the evolution of sustainable and rural tourism. Launched in 2021, this innovative programme aims to identify, recognise, and promote villages that exemplify the principles of sustainability, cultural richness, and community involvement in tourism. Zurab Pololikashvili, Secretary-General of UN Tourism, encapsulates its essence, saying, “This initiative recognizes rural destinations where tourism is embraced as a tool for sustainable growth and preservation of cultural and natural heritage.”

Since its inception, the initiative has gained attention worldwide, receiving nearly 600 applications from almost 100 countries. It boasts a network of 186 members globally, consisting of 129 recognised villages and 57 in the ‘Upgrade Programme’. These villages, spanning 55 countries across five world regions, illustrate the initiative’s wide-reaching impact.

The selection process, conducted by an external independent Advisory Board, thoroughly evaluates villages across nine critical areas. These include cultural and natural resources, economic, social, and environmental sustainability, and aspects of tourism organisation, community involvement, health, safety, and accessibility. This comprehensive assessment ensures that selected villages maintain their unique heritage while fostering sustainable economic and social development.

The Upgrade Programme is a key indicator of the initiative’s commitment to inclusivity and continuous improvement, providing support to villages that fall short of the criteria to improve. This programme emphasises the initiative’s role in fostering holistic development in rural areas.

The Best Tourism Villages Network enables a global exchange of experiences and best practices, strengthening the collective impact of the initiative. This network serves as a platform for villages to share knowledge, cultivating a community of sustainable practice and cultural preservation.

The initiative aligns with several United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, including SDGs 11, 12, and 15, by promoting sustainable tourism practices that balance economic growth with environmental stewardship and social equity.

For visitors, the Best Tourism Villages offer authentic experiences that connect deeply with local cultures and landscapes. This initiative shifts travel perspectives from mere sightseeing to understanding and respecting the communities that nurture these unique destinations.

Visitors to these villages embark on journeys filled with discovery and enlightenment. They experience firsthand how tourism can be integrated sustainably into rural life, thereby gaining a new appreciation for the delicate balance between preserving traditions, embracing modernity and enjoying a holiday experience.

The initiative also serves as a soft educational platform for visitors. Through interaction with local communities and participation in sustainable practices, travellers gain insights into the importance of preserving cultural and natural heritage. This educational aspect is crucial for fostering responsible tourism and creating ambassadors for sustainable practices worldwide.

Depending on the place the intention is that visitors can engage in immersive cultural experiences, ranging from traditional craft workshops to local cuisine tastings, offering a deeper understanding of the local heritage and lifestyle. This interaction with the community enriches the travel experience, making it more meaningful and memorable.

The initiative emphasises the importance of environmental stewardship. Visitors may witness how communities manage their natural resources sustainably, inspiring them to be more environmentally conscious in their own lives.

The Best Tourism Villages initiative by UN Tourism represents more than a programme; it’s an illustration of a shift in tourism focus. It portrays a future where travel is not only about leisure but also about contributing positively to the destinations visited. As this initiative continues to grow and evolve, it will undoubtedly play a pivotal role in shaping the future of sustainable and community-based tourism. It invites us all to explore, appreciate, and contribute to the preservation of the world’s rural treasures, ensuring they remain vibrant and sustainable for generations to come.

The UN initiative significantly contributes to the economic development of these rural areas. By attracting tourists, it opens up new opportunities for local businesses and artisans, fostering economic growth while ensuring that the benefits are felt directly by the community, the ‘Ripple Effect’ of tourism spend stays in the figurative ‘pond’ of the destination. This approach to tourism not only supports local economies but also helps to prevent rural exodus, keeping traditions and cultures alive.

The programme also underscores the importance of preserving intangible cultural heritage. From traditional music and dance to storytelling and local customs, these practices form the essence of the community’s identity. By showcasing and celebrating these elements, the initiative helps to keep these traditions vibrant and relevant.

The environmental aspect of the programme is also noteworthy. Many of the recognised villages have implemented innovative practices to protect their natural environment, such as sustainable farming techniques, conservation efforts, and eco-friendly tourism activities. These practices not only preserve the local ecosystem but also serve as a model for sustainable living that can be replicated in other communities.

The initiative has won praise from various stakeholders in the tourism industry for its holistic and inclusive approach. It is seen as a model for how tourism, when managed responsibly, can be a force for good, promoting not just economic growth but also social and environmental well-being.

As we look towards the future, the Best Tourism Villages initiative stands as a testament to the potential of tourism to be a catalyst for positive change. It offers a blueprint for how destinations can develop tourism sustainably, ensuring that it benefits both the visitors and the local communities. This initiative is not just about recognising the best practices in rural tourism; it’s about shaping a more sustainable and equitable future for all.

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Editorial submission – 05th February 2024