Eco-travelling with mountain communities

Tourism initiatives that support mountain peoples and their environment

Mountain tourism is a key source of income, but making sure it is sustainable is vital to protect the natural beauty and cultural heritage of these areas. ©Gribi Mohammed


Mountain regions around the world have long held a fascination for visitors, drawn by the rugged natural landscapes, outdoor activities, cooler summer temperatures and unique mountain cultures.  

In fact, for these communities, tourism brings with it a real economic lifeline. Mountains may look pretty, but they can be a tough place to live. They are remote areas with high levels of food insecurity, a lack of infrastructure and very few jobs. Tourism is a key source of income, but making sure activities are sustainable is vital to protect the natural beauty of mountainous areas and their cultural heritage. As travel begins to pick back up, we have a chance to rethink tourism, making sure it is sustainable in the long-term for the environment and local communities. 

The Mountain Partnership Secretariat at FAO and the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) have a new publication that explores the ways that mountain communities can leverage this to their advantage, creating both sustainable tourism opportunities and robust livelihoods. 

Here are just some places that are already doing that:

Ancient red rice in Philippines 

Nestled in the Cordillera mountain range in the Philippines are the Fummag Rice Terraces, famous across the country for their superior rice production. 

"Rice in the Philippine Cordillera represents life, culture and identity. It is the first crop to be planted before all other crops. It is the first food families prepare before cooking other foods," says 72-year-old Lita, who has worked in the rice fields her whole life. 

Ulikan red rice, native to the village of Pasil, is particularly renowned and Lita's ancestors have been growing this heirloom variety since ancient times. Legend has it that when the great leader Likan of the Taguibong tribes went missing after a hunt, the Ulikan red rice variety grew from his remains. The tribe brought the seeds home and planted them in remembrance of their leader. Fast forward several generations and there are over 400, predominantly women, Ulikan red rice farmers in the Pasil area.

The Mountain Partnership Secretariat, Slow Food and the Department of Tourism in the Philippines have now launched a project to connect small-scale producers with tourism service providers to tap into the potential of local food systems and products, including tours of the rice terraces. In 2019, Ulikan red rice was also granted FAO’s Mountain Partnership Products narrative label, a tag that tells the story of traditional products from its origins to its sales. This initiative aims to boost the income of mountain farmers living in remote areas.

Sustainable tourism options include ‘astrostays’ in the Himalayas and food tours of local rice farms in the Philippines. Left/top: ©Astrostays. Right/bottom: ©FAO/Lena Gubler

Stargazing in the Himalayas 

Do you fancy lying under the night sky, watching shooting stars in one of the best stargazing spots in the world? This is what some communities deep in the Himalayas are offering with their astrotourism services, which include night-time stargazing and special events for solar eclipses or meteor showers. Remote, mountainous areas offer the best vantage points for these events and, situated at an elevation of over 3 000 metres, the Indian region of Ladakh is the perfect location. 

Since 2018 villages across Ladakh have been following a community-led astrotourism model developed by the International Astronomical Union and Mountain Partnership member Global Himalayan Expedition. ‘Astrostays’, owned and operated by local communities, include homestays and stargazing sessions for tourists.

“Ever since we introduced astrostays in the village of Maan, tourists are now staying overnight to experience the night stargazing sessions, which has helped to generate additional income for us,” said Tsering Dorjey, a 29 year-old village resident.

Thirty women from 15 different villages have been trained in the basics of astronomy and hospitality. A team of five trained community members from Maan conduct night sky viewing sessions for the incoming travellers. 

“Tourists are now also visiting us in cold winters, when stargazing is at its best, which has helped to spread the benefits of tourism year-round,” Tsering added.

In the first four months of operations in 2019, Ladakh welcomed 450 visitors and generated income for the community, which was reinvested to set up 10 solar water heaters and 15 greenhouses vital for the community during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tourism can offer nomadic peoples the chance to keep living in the mountains while maintaining financial stability and preserving their local culture. ©Vincent Kronental

Experiencing nomadic life in Iran

It would be harder to find a more extraordinary experience than going on a migration with a nomadic tribe.

The tribes of Iran historically reside in mountainous areas, migrating twice a year so that their cattle can graze. However, the remoteness of their communities and the unique lifestyle often result in social exclusion and poverty, causing younger generations to abandon nomadism and settle for generally low-level jobs in cities. This only exacerbates the communities’ poverty and risks the ethnicity and culture of these nomadic tribes gradually disappearing forever. Ecotourism, on the other hand, offers nomadic peoples the chance to keep living in the mountains while maintaining financial stability and preserving their local culture.

IRANomad Tours has developed an ecotourism model that allows small groups of responsible foreign travellers the chance of joining a nomadic family from the Bakhtiari tribe on its migration. This tribe moves between the provinces of Bakhtiari, Chaharmahal and Khuzestan in the Zagros Mountains in southwestern Iran. During the journey, tourists share food, chores and tents with the family.

Increasing tourism has sparked the ambition of nomadic youth to become certified tour guides. A nine-month training course will give them a local guide certificate issued by the Iranian Ministry of Tourism, allowing them to offer their own customised tours.

The future of travel should be one that respects and supports local communities. Sustainable tours and experiences not only protects the environment, but boosts livelihoods for local communities and keeps mountain areas thriving for years to come.

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1. No poverty, 8. Decent work and economic growth, 12. Responsible consumption and production