Luring Tourist Cash to Smallholder Farms: the Upsides and the Downsides

Would you pay to be a farmer for a day or a week, or to simply visit a small rural farm and experience a little bit of what it takes to put food on the plates of millions? Many experts are betting you would.

Agricultural scientists far and wide, from Jordan to Jakarta, are growing confident that helping struggling communities and households develop a relatively new branch of tourism could be a potent means for funneling more income to rural areas. Scholars at a university in India are even mulling offering a degree program in the field of agricultural tourism, or agritourism, to promote the development of a smallholder farm tourism sector. Agritourism could become the next big thing in travel, delivering an additional revenue stream to regions in desperate need of economic opportunities.

But agritourism enthusiasts say they are under no time pressure, and many of them are wary of rolling out business plans too quickly for fear of any unintended consequences that might arise. A pair of agricultural researchers in Vietnam who Grow Further recently spoke with said they were eager to launch their experimental rural agritourism pilot concept, but figured they would need at least two more years before it would be ready. “Because rural [farm] tourism is very new, we also need time for building support,” Hoang Thi Thu Huyen, a graduate student researcher at Vietnam’s Center for Agrarian Systems Research and Development, told us.

There are important social, economic, and cultural factors that need to be better understood before introducing developing world smallholder farmers to the world of agritourism.

Farm Life on the Jordan River

Writing in Cogent Engineering, Bushra Obeidat of Jordan University of Science and Technology acknowledges that Jordan is not on the list of agritourism destinations today, but she’s setting out to see if that can’t be changed.

“Agritourism’s economic, social, and environmental advantages inspire locals to support and participate in it”

Using geographic information systems technology and on-the-ground investigations, Obeidat sought to determine what factors might facilitate or hinder the emergence of an agritourism industry in the village of Al-Baqura near the border with Israel. She says the community is keen on the idea but could use government support. Community members have concerns, as well, and have raised questions: would any additional needed development to support a tourism sector further damage the local environment, and would the added revenues really make that much of a difference?

Obeidat argues that the potential pros far outnumber the potential cons. She predicts not only higher incomes for farmers but also improved local infrastructure (especially plumbing and electricity), better sales of agricultural products within the village itself, and improved economic and cultural ties between Al-Baqura and the nearest city. “Agritourism’s economic, social, and environmental advantages inspire locals to support and participate in it,” she says.

Balancing revenues with costs

Other researchers are exploring when and how agritourism might succeed in developing countries, using a rural farming community in Iran as a test case.

Writing in Frontiers in Sustainable Cities, Alfarhan et al. agree that the economic benefits of agritourism can be great, but they set out to explore what unintended cultural and social consequences might come up. As their investigation showed, one important consideration is that would-be agritourism hosts may not be culturally prepared to welcome and deal with an influx of outsiders, especially a large one. And while a hosting community may enjoy an economic boost, the local government could be hit with additional administrative work and costs as it adjusts to manage the influx of people or to organize the community to better deal with tourists.

“It seems logical to attempt to attract more tourists,” the authors note. “However, there are still some problems with the success of agritourism development in these countries, including providing the infrastructure, proper education and training for farmers, providing a sufficient budget, and improving waste management as well as environmental protection in rural areas.”

Manageable problems

Virgilia Anna Gustiniani Pakalla and Achmad Ghozali, two urban and rural planning experts at the Institut Teknologi Kalimantan in Indonesia, predict a rural agribusiness boom is in store for their region if Indonesia’s central government moves the nation’s capital from Jakarta to Borneo, as it says it intends to. In economic terms, this could be a good thing, but as the two point out in a recently published conference paper, this development could also threaten neighboring farm communities’ water supplies and expose them to levels of pollution never seen before. Still, this pair seems convinced that challenges can be managed, as there is plenty for rural farming communities in Kalimantan to share with tourists. “Potential attractions…are agricultural land, various agricultural commodities, and agricultural activities carried out in the form of planting, management, and harvesting,” they say.

As far as ideas for lifting smallholder farm incomes go, the concept of drawing tourists to farms is a fairly simple one. Organizing an effective program that doesn’t result in any blowback is a far less straightforward endeavor. Grow Further will keep an eye out on these developments, including the rural community tourism initiative planned for launch in Vietnam in at least two years. 

Grow Further

Photo credit: Tourists board boats as they make their way to a bee farm in the Mekong Delta. William Cho/Flickr.

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