"My key message to those developing community-based sustainable tourism enterprises anywhere is to maintain strong focus on tourist demand"
Sarah Sitts has over 10 years in the fields of international development and sustainable tourism. Native to the U.S., Sarah has also worked in Tanzania, Myanmar and Cambodia. For the past three years, Sarah has served as the Cambodia country manager for Pact, a U.S.-based development NGO, managing a portfolio that includes natural resource management, livelihood, civil society, good governance and corporate social responsibility initiatives, in partnership with bilateral, multilateral and corporate donors. In Tanzania, Sarah advised on African Wildlife Foundation strategies to build community tourism livelihoods to reduce pressure on wildlife corridor areas, while researching value chains and tourism industry power structures for her Master’s thesis, Tourism and Economic Development in Tanzania. Sarah has also worked on sustainable tourism at the U.S. development organisation, DAI. Critical to the NGO world, Sarah has extensive fundraising expertise. She has a Master’s degree in sustainable international development from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University.
ECOCLUB.com: What first attracted you to this line of work, what do you consider as your main achievements and what more would you like to achieve?
Sarah Sitts: I find both tourism and economic/sustainable development fascinating and am so happy that I get to work in these fields. I hope my main achievements are ahead of me as I increase my expertise. My Master’s thesis, “Tourism and Economic Development in Tanzania” (available at http://dl.tufts.edu/catalog/tufts:UA015.012.075.00017), provides a useful analysis of the economic power structures and benefits of the tourism industry. I have contributed to several NGOs’ impact in areas of tourism, economic development and natural resource management and look forward to doing more.
You have extensive experience in Myanmar, Cambodia and Tanzania. Does sustainable tourism development in each of these countries present more similarities or differences? How easy is it to transfer knowledge and best practices between countries?
In my Master’s thesis, I analysed the Tanzanian tourism industry against 9 potential ways tourism could benefit the poor – which I adapted from the UNWTO’s 2004 framework of 7. I find this a very useful framework that is useful to considering the extent to which tourism is pro-poor in any place. My key message to those developing community-based sustainable tourism enterprises anywhere is to maintain strong focus on tourist demand. We know that ecotourism can appear an attractive income generation option to low-income communities living near precious natural resources – but too often, the solution leads the planning, rather than the hard questions about tourist demand. Is the area unique enough to attract tourists? Is it near tourist areas? Is it accessible to tourists? Are there tour operators engaged or other sustainable strategies to attract and communicate with tourists? It is easy for NGOs to invest a lot of money in community tourism strategies without adequate planning for generating the tourist numbers to recover that investment and create a sustainable livelihood.
After three years in Cambodia, are you optimistic about the country’s prospects for sustainable development?
Unfortunately, Cambodian political elites capture the value of many of the country’s most valuable resources – especially timber – while making very little investment in Cambodian society. While some Cambodians benefit from economic growth, the national government has not been willing or able to protect vulnerable populations, leaving too many people worse off. Many large, commercial development projects are able to kick people off their land and log the forests. In fact, Cambodia has one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world. Thus, I would not consider Cambodia’s overall development sustainable. At lower levels, NGOs and social enterprises implement projects that develop Cambodians’ capacities for sustainable, profitable livelihoods, and we are proud of our results. However, my biggest hope for Cambodia’s future is that Cambodians are growing their expectations and demand that their government should serve their interests. Many Cambodians want to see their country developed sustainably, with forest, aquatic and other resources for future generations to enjoy. We now see the Cambodian government trying to restrict civil society freedoms, but my hope for the sustainable development of Cambodia is that the voices and dreams of citizens will still prevail.
REDD+ has attracted a lot of criticism, particularly from indigenous communities. Do you feel that REDD+ is effective in terms of reducing deforestation and preserving community ownership of forests? What key improvements would you like to see?
My experience of REDD+ is mostly limited to Cambodia. From what I have seen, there are a lot of things that can be done poorly – or done well. The project Pact supported here did a lot of things well and was the first in the world to get a “triple-gold” rating on the Climate, Community and Biodiversity Alliance. Here, the biggest challenge is political will from the national government.
As an expert in securing funding for projects, do you think that online crowdfunding have a bright future as a development aid and microfinance platform or is it a fad that will always remain a side act compared to corporate and aid agency funding?
The most exciting possibility of online crowdfunding to me is if it engages residents of developing countries in supporting causes in their own country. Even in small amounts, people feeling that they have a financial stake in a cause can make them more likely to be champions of it socially and politically.
Based on your experience from the field, what needs to be done so that women's rights in destinations are enhanced rather than threatened by tourism development?
In most developing countries I see unrealized opportunities for local women to participate more in tourism supply chains. Here in Cambodia, we work with low-income women micro-entrepreneurs near the tourist beach destination of Sihanoukville. They had no understanding of what products tourist restaurants and hotels had a need for – nor were the tourism businesses aware of what the women could produce, and purchased most goods from the capital four hours away. We learned that there was an unmet demand for organic vegetables, and found a number of women who were eager to learn how to grow them. Some simple facilitation can be powerful to help tourism businesses communicate their demand locally.
Sex tourism is also a significant women’s and girls’ issue in Cambodia. Law enforcement and safety awareness are critical components of a solution – but again, if households can benefit economically in other ways in the tourism industry, they will be less likely to enter the type of desperate actions that lead to involvement in sex tourism.
Should non-profits and community-owned tourism businesses play a greater role in sustainable tourism compared to the private sector?
I don’t think there is a definitive answer to this. Sustainable and pro-poor value can come from any. It is important that locals – whether they are organizations or individual entrepreneurs – have fair playing ground to compete in the tourism industry. This is an important enabling environment issue. Likewise, we should expect that all tourism ventures – whether non-profit or private – strive to meet tourism standards that are consistent with the price they charge their guests.
If you had to choose your most favourite project so far which one would it be and why?
I’ve really enjoyed the Pact women’s livelihood project in Cambodia, growing its design from a savings group program to strengthening the ability of high-potential low income women, who have the drive and the smarts to grow micro-enterprises. It has been so rewarding to work with Pact’s team to design a curriculum that builds women’s understanding of how markets work and grow their connections to potential buyers for their products. I love watching them realize that they can work out better deals from themselves than traditional middlemen, pursue new businesses with energy and success, and work together in collaborative businesses. It’s completely sustainable as we are not pushing any product or scheme on them – just giving them the tools to make better decisions. We’ve seen significant increases in incomes as a result. It’s also important that, as we help them grow their incomes, we help them plan for resilience. We’re now focused on helping them identify vulnerabilities and plan for them. Now, not only will they continue growing their incomes, but will be able to weather shocks and other challenges with enhanced resilience.
Finally, what advice would you give to those currently pondering a career in international development and sustainable tourism?
Get yourself a role on the ground, where the action is happening. Studying beforehand is important, but field experiences enhance your view enormously and help you identify the most important questions to be asking. While unpaid internships and similar positions can be tough to swing financially in the short-term, they may be your best option in kick-starting a career in this field.