The Cotu were latecomers to this particular party. For centuries they had farmed the rugged Central Highlands of Viet Nam, as well as Laos, in largely blissful ignorance of the rest of the world. An idea of how zealously they guard their privacy can be gained from the discreet distances they often keep between their own villages. Rice is their staple food while weaving is a well-practiced activity. But some 20 years ago, the Japanese International Relief Organization - Foundation for International Development Relief (FIDR) introduced them to community-based tourism. It was a cautious start and only in Nam Giang district in the remote Northwest of Quang Nam province.
But with great patience and much discussion, the NGO managed to persuade them to unlock the potential of their time-honoured rituals and turn them into tourism products. Daily activities such as weaving colourful brocades and cooking up special dishes were obvious attractions for visitors. And in turn, the enthusiasm and appreciation with which they were received only encouraged the locals to practice them more.
Overseeing this model of cooperation between community and visitors have been Briu Thuong, Director of the Cooperative and a Cotu himself, and Nobuko Otsuki, Chief Representative of FIDR Viet Nam office since 2006. Mr Thuong has naturally had the interests of his people at heart while Mr Otsuki, after more than 10 years working with ethnic minorities in Viet Nam, has developed a special affection for them.
The close collaboration between the two, and between FIDR and the Cotu in general, was crucial in keeping a lid on the number of visitors and thus maintaining the traditionally quiet life of the villages. Too often we see the mores of a millennium disappear overnight once the floodgates are opened. But not on this occasion: the formation of a cooperative among the Cotu themselves ensured that their peaceful way of life was not unduly disturbed.
Preservation of the Cotu culture has been as much a part of Mr Thuong’s mission as giving the community the wherewithal to exploit available resources. He says: “During four years of taking part in the project of developing community tourism, I and the community have enjoyed many benefits. Thanks to the coordination of the 256 members of the cooperative, the gains from tourism development are balanced and shared equally in the community so that everyone is satisfied.”
But it was not always plain sailing for this particular aid ship, as Mr Thuong admits: “Besides the benefits, I encountered many challenges. At the outset, there was a difference in understanding of community tourism between local government and cooperatives. Whether it was to achieve social, economic or environmental goals, cooperatives put community values first. Above all, they wanted development to be sustainable. And only when that was achieved, did they want to increase the number of visitors. Even then it was to be done gradually and based on the capacity of the community.
“However, there were some people who wanted as many visitors as possible without considering the effects. As tourism is operated by the community itself, it is important to balance the interests of the travel companies and the community. Doing that so tourism could be effective was quite a challenge.”
But after overcoming these issues and enjoying years of success, he feels the cooperative is now in a position to cope with increased numbers. He says: “We are ready to enter a new phase and can now have regular visitors from our travel partners.
We have diversified our revenues through selling travel and tourism products and I am very happy that the community has developed a tourism model that can meet the new demands. We can have greater outside contact but still retain our identity and peaceful life”.
“The villagers and I are proud of ourselves and our homeland. The development of community tourism has awakened and restored all the traditional cultural and social resources of the ethnic Cotu. If I had not participated in the Cotu community-based tourism program, I would not be able to say ‘I am a Cotu.’
“I would not have learned more about my culture, would not have had the desire to preserve it and pass on that passion to the youth and the rest of the community. When I look at the dazzling faces of the people while they are dancing to visitors in the village or in the ancient town of Hoi An, I feel very happy that we have found ourselves”.
“My wish is that the cultural identity of the Cotu community is regenerated in a sustainable way. And this can be done through them working with travel companies and visiting delegations. We are already aiming for a bigger target by associating with the other communes that make up the Nam Giang brand.”
For a people that lived below the poverty line, it is a massive leap forward. But thanks to the careful approach of leaders like Mr Thuong, the Cotu feel able to take the next step. It has not been overnight – it has been a gradual transition – but one that has not only improved their standard of living but has strengthened their culture. As he says, the fact that so many visitors come to see and sample it has made them even more proud of their cultural heritage.