Yunguilla, community-based tourism, and Covid-19, by Ligia Simba-Bolaños

The Covid-19 pandemic decimated global tourism.[1] The year 2020 saw tourism drop by 73%. The industry saw slight improvement in 2021, but it was still down 71%. The United Nation’s World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) urges governments, international organizations, and donor agencies to include tourism as a priority in their recovery plans and measures. Tourism is an activity with an unparalleled capacity to integrate different activities. It is also an integral part of the agenda for sustainable development. It will play a key role in any future economic recovery.[2]

In Ecuador, where I am from, we have felt the crisis of tourism. The number of tourists decreased in Ecuador by 76% and 68% in 2020 and 2021, respectively.[4] The industry’s contribution to Ecuador’s GDP fell by almost 50% after 2019, amounting to just 1.2% for 2020 ($705 million USD.)[5]

Both the promise and some of the pitfalls of modern tourism can be glimpsed in Yunguilla, a rural Andean community, just 45 kilometers from Quito, the capital of Ecuador. There is only one road to the town that leads to a tropical highland forest that is part of the Andean Bear Ecological Corridor (CEOA). The community is located at an altitude that ranges between 1,300 and 2,900 meters above sea level.[6] Its population is of mestizo origin and includes 50 families and 250 inhabitants.[7] The community’s economic life is sustained through community-based rural tourism, ecotourism, and nine micro-enterprises that provide employment to residents.

Before the 1960s, the Yunguilla area was divided into large estates dedicated to agriculture and livestock.[8] The Agrarian Reform and Colonization Law of 1964 ordered the redistribution of land, the elimination of large estates, and the granting of land to communities. Yunguilla was one of the hundreds of communities in Ecuador that took advantage of the reforms. Its leading citizens formed a corporation that purchased the land surrounding their town, and in the early 1970s, began clearing the forest to make charcoal and lumber for the Quito market. Harvesting was unregulated. Ancient forests rapidly fell to the axe.

In 1995, Maquipucuna, an Ecuadorian non-profit organization, launched a reforestation project with the community. This activity marked the starting point for the conservation of the area’s forests. The project began with 18 people from Yunguilla, and in 1998, they welcomed the first foreign volunteers. This was the starting point of their community-based tourism.

By 2000, tourism had grown to the point that locals created the Yunguilla Microenterprise Corporation, which became the umbrella organization for business. Starting in 2003, the first community micro-enterprise began to operate with the manufacture of jams, cheese from local dairy farmers, various handicrafts, snacks, organic agriculture, accommodations for tourists in family homes, a restaurant, and a store. The success of Yunguilla and its tourism activity show how communities can adapt, reorganize, and maintain community, environmental, and tourism benefits for their members.

In the same year, the community obtained an official designation as a Conservation and Sustainable Use Area (ACUS) for 2,981 hectares. In 2018, the conservation area was 8,000 hectares, including the territory of the neighboring community.[9]

Community conservation efforts contribute to maintaining the biodiversity of the area. Community-based tourism was the activity that allowed the improvement in the quality of life of its inhabitants. Conservation efforts followed a practice of participatory management. Yunguilla’s success is reflected in the Corporation’s annual reports. For example, in 2019, a total of 7,387 people visited Yunguilla, mostly on day trips from Quito.

Yunguilla controls access to its community and resources by requiring tourists to hire local guides and pay for services such as lodging through the corporation. Similarly, the co-operative community enterprises – the cheese factory, the restaurant, and the store – employ the residents. And all profits from the corporation are distributed to the community through investment in infrastructure and micro-loans. The economic benefits of tourism have largely provided employment opportunities for many people and have resulted in profits that have been reinvested in the community in a socially responsible manner.[10]

Indeed, Yunguilla’s tourism industry is somewhat self-sufficient. All of the families in the community have established mixed production gardens, with crops of corn, vegetables (lettuce, chard, cabbage, beets, etc.), tubers such as potatoes, and fruit trees such as chigualcán and blackberries, from which they obtain their products for family food and for the tourists who stay in their homes. In addition, the growing of these crops is 100% organic, which includes all soil preparation activities and cultivation tasks such as planting, weeding, harvesting, and more.

The International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) has argued that “healthy soils produce healthy crops that promote healthy people.”[11] Yungilla has, through its various projects, meshed ecotourism with sustainable development and social well-being.

The Corporation and the Committee for the Improvement of the Yunguilla Neighborhood are the two legal entities that operate in the community. Each one has a different directive. The Committee was created in the 1970s as a general community council after Yunguilla obtained its land base during the agrarian reform period. The Committee is similar to a town hall and is responsible for infrastructure and other general management in the community. The Corporation was created as a separate legal entity to manage economic development and encourage community businesses. Together they manage the political, social, and economic aspects of the community.[12]


Yunguilla, for all its diminutive size, can be seen as part of a more global pattern. Twenty-five years ago, the isolated community became concerned about the local environment and began looking for solutions. The community chose to invest in reforestation and rural community tourism to protect the forests that surround them and improve the lives of residents.

At that time, Ecuador already enjoyed a vibrant tourism industry, and ecotourism quickly spread throughout Ecuador as an extension of the traditional tourism sphere. Yunguilla was one of many communities seeking to celebrate Ecuador’s natural beauty, but residents decided to place strict limits on the industry’s development. They were, perhaps without being completely conscious of the fact, aligning themselves with the first Human Development Report prepared by the United Nations Development Program in 1991.

This first report stated that the basic goal of human development was to broaden people’s range of choices to make development more democratic and participatory. These options should include access to income and employment opportunities, education and health, and a clean and safe physical environment. Each individual must also have the opportunity to fully participate in community decisions and enjoy human, economic, and political freedoms.[13] Yunguilla’s tourism industry promoted many of these benefits and opportunities to locals.

Ecuador has been considered one of the pioneering countries in this alternative, community-based form of tourism.[14] In this model of tourism development, whether it goes by the name of eco-tourism or experiential tourism, the community rules. In contrast to the conventional tourist industry, in this model the needs of local residents come first. Community-based tourism has arisen in the context of widespread interest in sustainable development and corporate-social responsibility.

In 2002, within Tourism Law No. 97, Ecuador’s Minister of Tourism decreed that the ministry would be responsible for “promoting and fostering all types of tourism, especially receptive and social, and the execution of projects, programs and the provision of complementary services with organizations, entities, and public and private institutions, including indigenous and peasant communities in their respective localities…”[15] Tourism offered a way to alleviate the situation of chronic poverty in many rural communities, especially those boasting of exceptional scenic beauty and many natural and cultural attractions.

In each Latin American country, the model has taken its own distinctive form. In Costa Rica, it is firmly linked to family and community-based companies in rural areas. Inhabitants of rural communities seek to manage their own development, including the management of local tourist destinations; in addition, communities participate in the planning and use of the natural resources of their environment in a sustainable manner, allowing them to improve their quality of life.[16] In Peru, it comprises all tourist activity that takes place in rural areas, in a planned and sustainable manner. Community-based organizations are harmoniously integrated into local traditional economic activities to contribute to the development of the community. Local culture and the natural environment are the key and differentiating components that make up its tourist product.[17]

In Colombia, it is the provision of tourist services, by an organized community, which participates in and benefits from the different links of the tourism production chain, in search of greater well-being, development, and economic growth, valuing the natural characteristics and culture of their environment, which allows them to provide competitive, sustainable and quality services.[18] And in Ecuador, it is a management model in which the local community takes advantage of the natural and/or cultural heritage of their region to develop and offer tourist services. This service is characterized by active community participation in the planning and execution of actions which promote sustainable social development through the reinvestment of the benefits derived from tourist activity.[19]

These models are subtly different from each other in theory and practice, but unifying them is the common pursuit of a tourism industry that serves local communities. Community-based tourism in Ecuador has been a strategy adopted by communities to generate additional income for their members, to help boost local economies, and to preserved balanced relations between humanity and non-human nature. There are community-based tourism groups that work together with the Ministry of Tourism to promote this type of tourism. Some of the leaders of these organizations are included in the decision-making bodies within the Ministry.

Community-based tourism integrates all members of the community in their distinctive groups, each of them accountable to their members. This economic activity does not represent a single group of people within an area and does not go beyond the hierarchies of the community. Reports on tourist activity are presented to the community at semi-annual and/or annual meetings.


How has this promising model fared during the pandemic? Yunguilla’s record suggests that, although it has hardly shielded locals from all its stresses, community-based development benefited them with greater resilience and flexibility at a time of unprecedented crisis. Covid-19 crippled Yunguilla’s tourism industry and forced many changes on locals, but it did not destroy the community.

To better understand the reality of Yunguilla, historical documents and reports from NGOs that worked with the community were reviewed. This analysis that is part of my doctoral research started in 2018. Additionally, in December 2021, I conducted interviews and semi-structured surveys with the aim of identifying the influence of the pandemic on families.

The survey focused mainly on learning about family socio-economic resources, the benefits provided by the organization to community members, and the historical and future perceptions of the community. For family economic income, they considered the total amount of money received by the family for actions inside and outside the community. Tourism coordinator Daysi Collaguazo and project coordinator Rolando Collaguazo were contacted for the management of the different activities, serving as community leaders able to supply information and coordinate local residents. The statistical results of this work provide invaluable insights into how ordinary rural people in a tourism-reliant community fared.

Yunguilla is made up of 50 families (250 inhabitants), of which 34% of the sample was surveyed, equivalent to 17 representatives. Surveying 10% of families is statistically defined as a “significant sample.”[20]

The survey was applied to men and women between the ages of 20 and 79, who live in the community. For the selection, the “snowball” criterion was used, with the first people selected being a representative of the tourism group, a young tour guide, and a founding member of the community. The interviewees then referred another member of the community or group, requesting that they not be part of the households already surveyed.

The average age of the people surveyed was 42 years. Demographics showed that 47.10% were young adults, 35.3% were middle-aged adults, and 17.6% were older adults. Of them, 41.20% were men and 58.80% were women. In Ecuador, an average family is made up of 4 members.[21] For Yunguilla, the average number of members per family is 4.41, of which 56.01% are women and 43.99% are men.

The frequency chart shows that 94.1% of the respondents (16 families) have their own house and 5.9% (1 family) rent a house. The houses are planned, designed, and built by the members of the community themselves. Housing materials are reinforced concrete, mixed construction of bricks and wood, and tile or zinc roofs.

The survey examined changes in the labour force. The labour was grouped into two ranges: dependents who work permanently with an employer, and independents who offer their services directly or occasionally. Before Covid, 58.80% of those surveyed worked for someone else and the remaining 42.20% were self-employed. During Covid, many families were left without employment; in Yunguilla, 70.60% of families lost their jobs, forcing the inhabitants to innovate and look for alternatives to obtain a source of income. In the wake of the pandemic, employment numbers changed, as 76.60% are now self-employed while only 23.50% are employed by others. One of the coordinators of the corporation, for instance, started a micro-enterprise producing jellies, which are sold to several bakeries in Quito.

Local incomes have also been influenced by Covid-19. For the income analysis, a stratification based on the costs of the Consumer Price Index Basket in Ecuador was carried out. There are two reference CPI baskets: first, the basic basket, which was defined in November 1982 and consists of 75 products; its value as of February 2020 was $713 monthly. Second, the vital basket, which due to the political strategy of the national government and the economic conditions of the country in 2007 is defined as including 73 products with a value of $501.60 in February 2020, considering an average of 4 members per family.[22] Thus, the family income ranges are defined as low income if less than $500, high income if greater than $713, and median income falling between the two.

Before Covid, just over 70% of the families in Yunguilla had high incomes. During the pandemic, 52.90% of families had no income, largely because of the disappearance of tourism; 47.10% have low incomes.

Many families earn sporadic additional income that helps the household economy. Locals work providing tourism services such as being guides and kitchen assistants (among other activities), as well helping in the sale of agricultural and livestock products. Before Covid, just over half of all families received this type of income ranging from $20 to $400 monthly with an average of $131.10. During the pandemic, 70.60% of those workers had stopped receiving income because of tourism’s hiatus.

Yet, nearly 30% of families maintained some additional income through the sale of animals and farm produce but in a lower range of $20 to $340 and with an average per-family intake of $144. Post-Covid, this figure declined to 24.70%, with a range of $20 to $300 and an average of $92.73, denoting that families are maintaining that additional economic income. Since, upon losing their main family income, several of the families started private initiatives (micro-enterprises) with which they have begun to boost the family economy. Others, still, are waiting for the full return of the tourism industry. The overall pattern suggests that a local community developing tourism should retain alternatives to it, given the industry’s renowned volatility.

These changes to work and incomes have had larger influences on local spending habits. Before Covid-19, the average spending of the families surveyed was $446.12 per month. During the pandemic the average was $247.59. The post-pandemic spending still hovers around $299.06, a sign that things have yet to return to normal.

Some expenses were directly a cause of the pandemic. During Covid-19, 58.8% of the families reported having made additional expenses for the purchase of medicines, medical check-ups, cleaning supplies for the home, and veterinary products, which ranged from $25 to $4,000 and an average of $470.70. After Covid, only 47.10% reported other extra expenses that ranged from $15 to $200 with an average of $72.40.

Savings and debt patterns also changed during the pandemic. Before Covid, 64.70% of families maintained an average savings of $5,550. During the pandemic, only 23.50% of families were able to continue saving, but the average amount rose to $12,125; this variation is related to the preservation of family income through dependency jobs. After Covid, the percentage of families that saved increased to 47.10%, with an average of $6,762.50. There were also changes to credit patterns. Of the families surveyed, 47.10% had an average credit of $25,500 before Covid. During the pandemic, the percentage of families with debt fell to 23.50%, but the average amount rose to $45,375. After Covid, 41.20% of families have obtained or maintained a loan, with an average of $21,751.43.

Beyond generating these economic data, the survey was also focused on understanding social issues. Community aid before the pandemic was weighted as “very good” and “good” with 35.30% and 52.90%, respectively. During the pandemic and lockdown, however, this appreciation had lower ranges: “very good” (35.30%), “good” (41.20%), and “bad” (17.60%). The community’s decision to lockdown access to Yunguilla generated feelings ofinsecurity, non-conformity, and loneliness. Like elsewhere, locals felt the pandemic’s emotional and psychological tolls. In the period after the quarantine and with the reopening of activities, the assessment of community aid rose again to “very good” with 17.60% and “good” with 76.50%.

The pandemic also influenced views of health and well-being. Family health before Covid was weighted as “excellent” (23.50%), “very good” (47.10%), and “good” (29.40%). Despite their preventative measures, the virus reached Yunguilla and influenced the health of the families. Survey responses noted that many locals contracted the virus, but there is little health data specific to Yunguilla. During the pandemic, 47.10% characterized family health as “good.” This changed after the pandemic, as perceptions changed: 5.90% of families reported “excellent” health, 29.40% “very good,” 41.20% “good,” and 23.50% reported “poor” family health.

While the pandemic has been a challenging burden to Yunguilla’s tourism industry, those surveyed held an optimistic view of the future. Nearly a third of those surveyed believe there is an excellent probability that tourism will fully return, and nearly all locals remain positive in some future for tourism. For locals, the industry provides more than employment. It also bolsters community unity, sustainable development, training and education, and hope for the future.


Yunguilla was no different than countless other tourism-reliant communities in some respects. Tourism’s decline generated manifold, interlinked problems, ones encompassing but going well beyond health and well-being. Many worried about how they would make a living, their families and their community.

But what made a difference in Yunguilla was community control and individual initiative. As there were no job offers during the Covid period, families chose to promote new initiatives of their own, going from being employed workers before Covid to being self-employed after Covid, and starting activities such as the preparation of supplies for pastry, transportation, animal husbandry, among others, for which they requested or extended their loans.

Indeed, these have been challenging times for the community of Yunguilla. Family income before the pandemic allowed families to cover the cost of the basic basket, but due to fluctuations in income and work, the current average allows them to cover only the cost of the vital basket. Yet, some locals have succeeded through the pandemic. Alternative industries, agricultural services, and new micro-enterprises have shown Yunguilla’s resiliency through hardship. Tourism may work well as one element in a community’s tool-kit, provided it does not become its only economic mainstay and answers to its needs.

Many in Yunguilla await tourism’s recovery. The tourist services of family accommodation, food, and guidance are being reactivated and will once again generate additional income for families. Despite the pandemic and the harsh economic situation experienced in Yunguilla, the community is optimistic and believes that there is a promising future. Through unity and organization, they hope to once again provide tourists with remarkable experiences—and to demonstrate, to Ecuador and the world, that another tourism truly is possible.


Source: Corporación Microempresarial Yunguilla. (2018). (Barros 2021) Elaboration: Ligia Simba
Source: Rolando Collaguazo 2022. Elaboration: Ligia Simba 2022.

[1] Special thanks to Dr. Ronald Harpelle, Dr. Tom Peotto, Dr. Bryan McLaren, and MSc. Vinicio Guaman for all the support received. I really appreciate the help, kindness, and facilities given by the community of Yunguilla, throughout the research process. I made a video of my experience in Yunguilla, which you can see here: Link to source.

[2] These include subsidies for water, micro-credits to renovate homes, a guard to control access to the community, and other benefits for community members.


[4] UNWTO, “A compilation of data on inbound tourism by country, including data on international tourist arrivals, international tourism receipts and international tourism exports,” (2022). Link to source.

[5] MINTUR, “Presentación Mensual, Información del Sector Turístico, Dirección de Información Turística y Análisis Económico, Subsecretaría de Desarrollo Turístico,” (2022).

[6] Germán Collaguazo, “Yunguilla, 15 años de trabajo comunitario construyendo nuestro modelo de desarrollo local sostenible,” (Universidad Politécnica Salesiana, 2012).

[7] PDOT Calacalí, “Plan de Desarrollo y Ordenamiento Territorial Calacalí 2015-2019,” (2015); See also Diana Tamayo, Roberto Ulloa, and Christian Martínez, “Plan de Manejo Yunguilla. Conservación Internacional, Corporación Microempresarial Yunguilla,” Secretaría de Ambiente del Distrito Metropolitano de Quito, EcoFondo, (2015).

[8] Kathrin Hopfgartner, “Estudio de Caso. Corporación Microempresarial Yunguilla: La propuesta sustentable de turismo comunitario,” (Instituto de Estudios Ecuatorianos y el Observatorio del Cambio Rural, 2015).

[9] Yunguilla, “Corporación Microempresarial Yunguilla,” (2020). Link to source.

[10] Organics International (IFOAM), The Principle of Health, n.d., Link to source.

[11] Hopfgartner, “Corporación Microempresarial Yunguilla.”

[12] Gilbert Rist, The History of Development: From Western Origins to Global Faith (London: Zed Books, 2002).

[13] Ballesteros Esteban Ruiz, Turismo comunitario en Ecuador: desarrollo y sostenibilidad social, ed., Abya Yala (2007).

[14] MINTUR, Ley De Turismo Ley 97 Registro Oficial Suplemento 733 De 27-Dic.-2002, (2014).

[15] Instituto Costarricense de Turismo ICT, “REGLAMENTO DE LA LEY DE FOMENTO DE TURISMO RURAL COMUNITARIO Decreto Ejecutivo No. 36273-MEIC-H-TUR, (2010). Link to source.

[16] Mincetur, “El Ministerio de Comercio Exterior y Turismo de Perú. Resolución Ministerial N° 402-2019 — Lineamientos para el desarrollo de Turismo Comunitario en el Perú,” (2019). Link to source.

[17] MINCIT, “Ministerio de Comercio, Industria y Turismo LINEAMIENTOS DE POLÍTICA PARA EL DESARROLLO DEL TURISMO COMUNITARIO EN COLOMBIA,” (2012). Link to source.

[18] MINTUR, Ministerio de Turismo del Ecuador. Acuerdo Ministerial 16 Registro Oficial 154,” (2010).

[19] D. Soares and I. Gutierrez-Montes, “Vulnerabilidad social, institucionalidad y percepciones sobre el cambio climático: un acercamiento al municipio de San Felipe, Costa de Yucatan,” (2011).

[20] Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Censos (Ecuador), Canastas analíticas. Canasta familiar básica y canasta familiar vital de la economía dolarizada. Febrero,(2020/2021).

[21] Ibid.