Along with the swift expansion of the sector over recent decades, the map of international tourism has diversified to a huge extent. Many emerging and developing economies have rapidly grown into tourist destinations, consumers are evermore sophisticated, technology has progressively changed business models, and the offer is increasingly varied. In this context, the so-called ‘rural tourism’ has become a great opportunity for both visitors and for welcoming communities.
With over a thousand million international tourists travelling across the globe and an estimated six thousand million internal tourists, tourism is a key sector in the world economy and represents almost 10% of the world GDP, 6% of total exports and one of every eleven jobs around the world.
Along with the swift expansion of the sector over recent decades, the map of international tourism has diversified to a huge extent. Many emerging and developing economies have rapidly grown into tourist destinations, consumers are evermore sophisticated and technology has progressively changed business models. All these factors have led to an increasingly varied tourist offer.
In this context, rural tourism or the tourism that offers rural culture as a key element of travellers’ experience offers multiple benefits both for visitors and for welcoming communities.
Rural tourism gives visitors an idea of the physical and human atmosphere of rural environments, offering personalised contact and participation in the activities, traditions and lifestyles of the rural population. As a result, closer ties are established between tourists and welcoming communities and awareness is raised on the need to protect and preserve the environment.
Furthermore, rural tourism promotes regional development in many different ways—through the creation of jobs and opportunities of generating income for the local population, the consumption of local products and services and the improvement of infrastructure and facilities. Duly planned and managed, rural tourism can also offer sustainable lifestyles for traditionally disadvantaged segments of society such as women and youngsters.
As well as the jobs created directly by tourism, the money spent by visitors can indirectly help create jobs in other areas due to its multiplying effect. When tourists pay for local goods and services, for instance, they boost local economies and create opportunities for small and traditional companies. Tourism can thus improve the quality of life of the welcoming population by supporting activities that would not otherwise be feasible.
Agro-tourism, a segment of rural tourism, refers to farm tourism or to tourist pursuits based on agriculture, allowing farmers to diversify their pursuits and increase the value of their products.
In certain European countries a significant number of farms offer some form of tourist accommodation. In Spain, for example, a country proud of its rural and ethnographic heritage, tourists can find accommodation in rural or country houses and experience farming cultural traditions that differ from one region to the next. Visitors can enjoy unique experiences of immersion in local culture such as reaping the fruits of the land, feeding farm animals or simply enjoying rural landscapes.
To improve the socio-economic impact of rural tourism, the sector should focus on creating capacities in local communities, especially among women and the young, in order to help them find employment in tourist companies, to supply tourists and tourist companies with goods and services, and to set up small and medium-sized companies in the sector.
The close collaboration between governments, the private sector and civil society is very important for tourism to be able to contribute to the development of rural areas. In accordance, governments will be able to channel taxes and tourist fees towards infrastructure projects and development initiatives. By providing incentives for investment and legislation that will promote local employment and links to other local productive activities while developing capacities for local communities, a great number of local jobs can be created in the tourist industry.
With a clear strategy, a regulatory framework for the development of tourism in rural areas and the promotion of destinations among potential investors, the sector can attract new capital and create further employment opportunities and therefore generate more income.
As a flourishing segment within the tourist industry, rural tourism has great potential for sustainable development in its social, economic and environmental dimensions. Offering invaluable opportunities for both visitors and hosts, it expresses the transformative role played by the sector thanks to inclusive development, multicultural understanding and social change.