Tourism: an opportunity for the economic development of rural areas (Part 1)

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Author: Coralie Marti
Country: France

I. Design a program to support rural tourism

Tourism is increasingly becoming a key sector of the economy of countries with international investment. In 2019, just before the global health crisis of COVID-19, the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) forecast an average annual growth rate of 5% in international tourism flows until 2030, particularly in developing countries.

The current crisis has brutally interrupted this dynamic, with a drop of approximately 80% concerning the international flow estimated for 2021, causing serious economic and social consequences. However, the UNWTO, the World Travel, and Tourism Council (WTTC) and most analysts in the tourism sector predict that the sector will have a recovery from 2022 or 2023, after the stabilization of sanitary conditions. In the framework of this expected rebound, rural tourism could be one of the first sectors to grow again, particularly due to changes in tourist behavior. Whether by constraint (for example, the closure of borders) or by choice (the desire to escape from cities and crowds, the aspiration to “connect with nature” after confinement, etc.), over the next few years people will increasingly direct their interest towards relatively little frequented destinations, closer to nature, but also closer to their places of origin. Thus, tourism development represents a considerable opportunity for the creation of economic activities and jobs in certain rural areas.

The expression “rural tourism” is frequently associated with the concepts “agricultural tourism”, “agritourism” and “farm tourism”. We speak of agricultural tourism or agritourism (also called agrotourism) when the main purpose of the trip is to discover a territory’s agricultural know-how and, by extension, the landscapes, traditions and culinary specialties resulting from agriculture. The visit has a specific agricultural objective, such as being with animals, understanding the production of wines and spirits or tasting local products, such as dairy products. On the other hand, the expression “farm tourism” refers to the accommodation of tourists on farms, without the purpose of the trip being necessarily linked to agriculture. The purpose of the trip (for example, hiking, visits to natural heritage and sites, gastronomy, etc.) is in the wider rural area, but visitors are housed in active farms, partially converted into accommodation facilities.

Moreover, rural tourism is a much broader concept that includes all forms of tourism that take place in rural areas. It can include other forms of accommodation (refuges, camps, classic hotels) and activities that are practiced in the rural environment, but that are not necessarily linked to agriculture, such as adventure sports and visits to heritage sites, nature reserves, traditional markets, and even cultural festivals.

The products of rural tourism (that is, the goods or services that will be sold to tourists and will generate income) can be developed through agritourism (accommodation in farms, guided tours and/or participation in agricultural activities), but also, to a greater extent, through other types of activities that can be practiced in the rural environment, for example, related to the contemplation of landscapes, sports, hobbies, wellness or cultural attractions. In order to mitigate the effects of economic downturns at the local level, an attractive and competitive rural destination should offer other tourism products in addition to accommodation.

II. Situation analysis and logic of the intervention

The challenges, objectives and types of strategies for rural tourism varies widely depending on the destination, which poses certain challenges when designing an intervention logic.

Jenny Holland, Michael Burian and Louise Dixey (2003) explain that in Europe tourism is often seen as a driver for the regeneration of rural areas, particularly in places where traditional agricultural value chains are in decline. That is why the development strategies of rural tourism are mostly focused on domestic visitors and economic restructuring. Given that the facilities and infrastructure that allow the reception and transit of visitors (hospitals, roads, services, etc.) are already in place, the strategy is to adapt them for tourism purposes, commercializing rural attractions and attracting customers, especially domestic visitors residing in cities. In France, for example, rural tourism has made a significant contribution to the income of both farmers and rural communities. It does not necessarily replace agricultural income, rather, the rise in rural tourism has generated additional income and cross-sectoral connections.

In developing countries, strategies to support rural tourism are based on the diversification of the rural economy. In this context, tourism is promoted as a new activity, complementary to agriculture or hunting (in the case of protected natural areas) which to some extent enhances their value by promoting the region, its traditional production and processing techniques and its cultural heritage. Support for rural tourism is geared towards finding new sources of growth and employment opportunities directly on the ground, while small-scale agriculture faces increasing constraints. The challenge, and therefore the strategy that follows from it, is to create new assets, for example, accommodation and new infrastructure, such as building a paved road to improve access to the destination from the main places of residence or tourist arrival points, making easier their transfers within the destination, or to develop waste management services. In this way, tourism is an opportunity to invest in infrastructure and services that are key for economic development, as a way to take preventive measures in case of severe economic downturns.

A major challenge in developing countries is the competitiveness of rural destinations. There is often an important difference between the prerequisites for the development of an attractive tourist destination and the initial characteristics of the rural area in which the intervention is desired, as shown in the following table:

Prerequisites / Common factors for tourism developmentCommon characteristics of rural areas
A product or potential attractive productVery varied. It may be unique attractions, a convenient location for city customers, among other things. Some territories have few attractions to offer.
Accessibility: acceptable transport infrastructure, travel time and level of comfortFar from cities, poor quality roads, or no type of transportation (plane, train, bus, etc.)
Public and private investment in reception and accommodation infrastructureLimited access to capital and to credit institutions, low priority concern for governments.
Skills linked to the service and hospitality industryLow skills (emigration of people with university education), large cultural distance between tourists and local populations.
Regular supply of resources and quality materialsUnderdeveloped commercial production that is not competitive in the market.
Knowledge of marketing and salesDisadvantage between tourism promotion and distribution networks, lack of knowledge of the quality, hygiene, safety and comfort standards expected by tourists.
Variety of products and tourist attractions to offer package toursLow concentration of tourist attractions and products in one place (as opposed to cities).
Table adapted from Jenny Holland, Michael Burian and Louise Dixey (2003)

Another major challenge is the relationship between rural tourism and the often-fragile natural areas in which tourism activities take place. Natural spaces, landscapes and biodiversity are often the number one tourism attribute of rural destinations. Thus, there is tension and a need for balance between protecting the environment and its economic value. In protected natural areas, the primary objective of the interventions is to protect the environment in areas where it has already been degraded. Tourism is then considered as an opportunity for economic development and job creation, which could eventually limit the destruction of the local environment (poaching, deforestation, etc.). In other cases, the degradation is caused by tourism, and the intervention seeks to limit the negative effects of tourism. The tool of choice in this type of approach is the development of ecotourism activities, combining loans and subsidies.

Finally, tourism is a cross-cutting activity that is part of a value chain correlated to multiple sectors: agriculture, transport, urban planning, environmental protection, waste management, water and energy, employment and social policies. Thus, the notion of sustainability in rural tourism cannot be understood without also considering its impact on other sectors.

For all these reasons, the design of a program to support the development of rural tourism requires an in-depth analysis of the situation and to identify all the factors and elements at stake.


UNEP, UNWTO (2006) “For a more sustainable tourism. Guide for policy makers.” Available at (accessed January 29, 2020).

Holland, J; Burian, M; Dixey, L. (2003) “Tourism in Poor Rural Areas Diversifying the product and expanding the benefits in rural Uganda and the Czech Republic” in Pro-Poor Tourism Working Paper No. 12. Available at (accessed January 29, 2021).

Coralie Marti is an M&E consultant specialized in culture and tourism project development and management and territorial development strategies. She has collaborated with PRiME as a trainer for the Fundamentals of M&E 1 online course.