In the last decade, the World Tourism Organization has launched tourism campaigns and sustainable tourism/poverty eliminating programs as tools to uplift the economic benefits in marginalized communities [1
]. In particular, it has been extensively recognized that community-based tourism can improve the communities’ economic status [4
]. Local people have preserved their traditional culture and society, leading to a rise in tourist interest in local cultures. Additionally, residents’ environmental awareness is increased through various unique and uncommon species has created an awareness to conserve natural resources in order to provide beautiful tourism experiences to tourists [5
]. That is, community-based tourism is an effective approach to ensure sustainable tourism development (STD) through the process of sharing benefits among all community members and the conservation of natural resources [6
]. In less developed countries, community-based tourism is an alternative to mass tourism, which Zhao and Timothy [3
] argue not only generates financial resources but also helps to mitigate the negative effects of mass tourism such as environmental damage. In other words, successful community-based tourism helps to enhance local people’s quality of life by reducing poverty and preserving natural and cultural resources in the community [7
In the least developed communities, community-based tourism projects have been mostly initiated by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) or governments. However, since tourism projects have a high risk of failing if the community does not control or support the post-implementation [8
], residents should participate in the process of STD. Additionally, for the community residents’ involvement in STD, the concept of residents’ empowerment should be considered [1
Within the tourism literature, a consensus has been reached over the last 30 years on residents’ involvement in tourism activities to ensure sustainability [1
] because community plays a central role in planning sustainable and socially responsible tourism [14
]. Though previous studies have suggested that STD initiatives are not successful without the cooperation, support, goodwill and participation of local residents, researchers are still exploring and categorizing the resident attitudes witnessed and reported. Therefore, it is necessary to clearly establish the causal relationship between empowerment and residents’ participation that leads to successful STD establishment.
In recent community-based tourism research, community power and empowerment have been considered crucial issues. Though empowerment has been considered important for community-based tourism, and numerous conceptual and qualitative studies have been examined on resident’s empowerment, empirical evidence to measure empowerment remains lacking [15
]. A creative approach for citizens’ participation in community-based tourism should be adopted, and a proper model should be developed to ensure STD in the context of developed countries. For example, Li [16
] noted the application of the community-based tourism concept in developing countries like China [17
] but found that the studies only highlight community involvement in terms of the economic benefits of tourism while neglecting its other important elements.
Though community empowerment and sustainable tourism have been discussed in previous studies, focus has only rarely been directed at the elaborate mechanisms between them. The current study highlights the need for more research on resident’s empowerment and how their support for tourism functions in the process of implementing community’ STD. Therefore, the current study examines the relationship between community empowerment and STD, specifically the mediating role played by community support for tourism.
This study contributes to tourism literature by developing a model that links important variables of community-based tourism to the sustainability of tourism development.
The current research finding shows that community empowerment has a strong impact in facilitating STD. In the history of STD research, residents’ empowerment has been identified as a key driver in developing sustainable tourism [9
] for the long lasting economic, social and cultural lives of community members. Community empowerment gives power to the local residents in making decisions to implement plans and policies for STD, thus raising the community’s welfare [30
]. This study replicated and expanded the existing literature by testing the theory using data empirically collected from residents in the context of community-based tourism in a least developed country.
The result for the data analysis revealed that there is a significant positive relationship between community empowerment and community support for tourism. That is, community empowerment is considered a prerequisite for community support for tourism, as increasing information and capacity followed by participation in decision making for local initiates for tourism development increase resident support for tourism. The findings support social exchange theory, which postulates that power is central to social exchange because it determines a community’s ability to benefit from tourism and support tourism development [43
]. Communities with a chance to participate in the planning and management for tourism development initiatives determine their support for tourism [32
]. The findings highlight the significant relationship between community support for tourism and STD. The study findings are consistent with previous findings [43
]. The result implies that the objective of sustainable tourism cannot be achieved without the support for tourism of the local community.
Community support for tourism significantly and partially mediates the effect of community empowerment on STD. Previous studies have shown a mediating effect of community support between perceived tourism impact and support for tourism planning [35
]. The findings of this study also highlight community support’s bridging role from community empowerment to STD. That is, residents’ community support for tourism is strengthened when there are leaders’ support for residents, residents’ strong accountability, and residents’ capability building, thus leading the community to successful STD.