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An NGO says community-based tourism can help poor communities that have gone uninvited to the industry's profit party

The village of Chieng Yen in Moc Chau District of Son La Province is not on the top of most tourists' lists.

Located about 150 km northwest of Hanoi and with a population of only 3,500, it has been largely untouched by modernization and is home to the Thai, Dao, and Muong minority communities.

A community-based tourism program developed three years ago by SNV Netherlands Development Organization has begun bringing in tourists to village as part of a program country director Tom Derksen says aims to include disadvantaged locals in "mainstream tourism."

SNV uses Chieng Yen to cater to tourists seeking authentic village life, cuisine and the opportunity to get involved in volunteering, such as teaching English.

"In all the work that we do, we always ask ourselves the question: why doesn't the market work for the poor?" Derksen said. "So we're not just talking about charity improvement for a particular group of people or community, but helping them in a longer term."

It's estimated that tourism is now a US$3.8 billion industry in Vietnam, with the travel and hospitality sector employing about 250,000 direct and 600,000 indirect laborers a number that is likely to reach 1.2 million in total by 2010.

But far too often, the locals living in many communities, even those at major tourist sites, do not benefit from tourism development.

"If you look at the increasing tourism numbers in the country, both domestic and international about 25 million visitors in total, and the benefits that are made from all of the increase by local people, their additional income is proportionally very, very low," according to Derksen.

According to SNV, most ethnic villagers have little understanding of the tourism industry and only benefit from selling tourist products or services at extremely low prices.

SNV is thus operating community-based tourism programs in Hue, Sa Pa, the Mekong Delta as well as promoting agro-tourism in the Northwest provinces, where visitors can experience agriculture firsthand.

According to Phil Harman, SNV Vietnam's Pro-poor Sustainable Tourism Program leader, the organization works to train local and authorities in sanitation, food preparation, and language skills.

The organization also partners with local authorities to help local residents collect fees for providing tourist accommodation while also helping design and build trails for trekking and hiking.

SNV supports programs in which a percentage of the fees tourists charged for homestays and other services go into a fund managed locally. The fund can then be used for environmental protection, education or social development, according to the organization.

"When we develop tourism, it's important that the benefits do not just go to one or two homes that are going to have tourists," Harman said. "You need some benefit sharing mechanism that puts the rest of the community better off."

Harman said identifying and developing off-the-beaten-track destinations can lead provincial authorities to increase access to these villages by building additional roads and improving power lines.

SNV Vietnam also works with tour operators, particular members of the Responsible Travel Club, to design tours that are more environmentally friendly to local sites and share more of the tourist dollars to the residents.

Harman said there's a growing tendency toward responsible tourism.

For example, recent SNV research conducted in Sa Pa showed that 40 percent of visitors were put off by the amount of traffic and more than 30 percent were not happy with the level of litter in public places and pollution in waterways, which "are signs that tourism needs to be better managed," he added.

In addition, 97 percent were more willing to pay more for a holiday that was more environmental friendly and inclusive of the poor, according to SNV.

"People can move on to the next destination," said Harman. "There are a lot of places to go in the world. If you don't like it, why bother coming back?"

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