All about the kampung life: 5 villages you should visit one day


By AGENCY

The villagers in Biei, Japan uses a sustainable farming techniques like crop rotation that allows its soil to be fertile throughout the year. — Pixabay

From the Acropolis in Athens, Greece and St Mark’s Square in Venice, Italy to the beaches of Phuket, Thailand and beyond, you’ve probably noticed that most tourists are back to visiting the usual bucket list destinations.

An initiative from the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) could be part of the solution to spread the crowds – and their tourism dollars – beyond those well-trod places.

UNWTO’s third edition of its Best Tourism Villages list, released recently during its general assembly in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, highlights 54 lesser-known rural destinations around the world that are worth visiting for natural and cultural draws.

But there’s more to the selections. These are rural locations, each with fewer than 15,000 inhabitants, where traditional activities such as agriculture and fishing still take place. More important, they’ve figured out how to draw a significant number of visitors without causing harm to their communities or the environment while finding innovative ways to protect them.

Take Alquézar, a village in Aragon, Spain, which won a spot on UNWTO’s Best Tourism Villages list in 2022. Located nearly three hours’ drive northwest of Barcelona, this historic inland enclave sits at the foothills of the Sierra y Cañones de Guara Natural Park. Visitors can expect rugged mountain landscapes for hiking, caving and canyoning, as well as guided tours around the brick-walled town and through its narrow cobblestoned alleys.

“It was a village that was losing population, and tourism has allowed them not only to retain people but also to start seeing people interested in returning back to the village,” says Sandra Carvao, who helps develop rural tourism as the director of tourism competitiveness at UNWTO.

“It’s not about being the most beautiful in the world,” she says about the Best Tourism Villages winners in general. Each one must have “very interesting cultural and natural heritage”, she explains. And they must take that further.

“It’s about what they do with it – how they protect it, how they’ve implemented social programmes to have the community engaged, and how they are taking care of that community.”

Alquézar, a village in Spain, won a spot on the Best Tourism Villages list in 2022. — MIKIPONS/WikipediaAlquézar, a village in Spain, won a spot on the Best Tourism Villages list in 2022. — MIKIPONS/Wikipedia

In Alquézar, the governing body created a free child-care space that also operates outside normal working hours, including on weekends, to accommodate tourism staff, such as restaurant servers, hotel receptionists, tour guides and others who face varying work schedules common in the travel industry.

“At the end of the day, you’re allowing the sector to develop – and you’re allowing someone to have a job, because you’re supplying them with a support network,” explains Carvao.

In Angochagua, a town two hours’ drive north of Quito, at close to 3,000m of altitude in Ecuador’s Andean highlands, visitors find themselves immersed in day-to-day life with the Caranqui people. They can participate in cooking classes that highlight the tribe’s endemic grains and cereals, or try their hand at traditional embroidery practices and pottery making, among other activities.

Visiting these places doesn’t necessarily mean staying in local homes, either: Angochagua is home to the five-star Hacienda Zuleta, a working farm and estate with 19 rooms owned by the family of Galo Plaza Lasso, a deceased president of Ecuador.

Behind the scenes, the community runs reforestation programmes that restock native plants, along with training for tourism entrepreneurs. It also has a team of community guards and park rangers who participate in a region-wide initiative to conserve the paramo, a high-altitude ecosystem of forests and grasslands unique to the Andes.

Competition to earn a spot on UNWTO’s annual list of must-see tourism villages – which has been published since 2021 – is fierce, given the way it propels destinations into the consciousness of international and domestic visitors. Carvao says previous winners have recorded noticeable gains in tourism after recognition; at least five have been incorporated into countrywide itineraries by such global tour operators as Intrepid Travel.

This year, more than 60 of 159 member countries in the organisation submitted a record 260 nominations. These were vetted by an advisory board of 30 experts from a wide range of relevant professional backgrounds. Submissions were judged on nine criteria, including their natural and cultural resources and how the villages work to conserve them; the priority their leadership gives to tourism; whether they engage in sustainable practices; and their infrastructure development.

The 54 winners for 2023 range from a highland village in Indonesia to a mining town turned ski destination in Switzerland and an agricultural hamlet in China – along with communities of artisans and musicians in nearly every corner of the globe. Here are five memorable rural escapes that are easily accessible from major cities.

The villagers in Biei, Japan uses a sustainable farming techniques like crop rotation that allows its soil to be fertile throughout the year. — PixabayThe villagers in Biei, Japan uses a sustainable farming techniques like crop rotation that allows its soil to be fertile throughout the year. — Pixabay

Biei, Japan

Two hours north of Sapporo on Hokkaido, Biei draws visitors with its summertime scenery of purple lavender fields, as well as poppies, marigolds, sunflowers and others (see cover pic). Rent an electric bicycle or drive to take in the views, but proceed slowly: This village is for lazy meandering amid colourful scenery. Sample lavender-flavoured ice cream at Farm Tomita, where you can hike around flower fields, tour a range of traditional houses with floral displays and sample locally crafted, lavender-based scents – all proof of the amplified role the blooms play in local life.

The village’s winning approach, which brings a consistent stream of tourists, is in sustainable farming techniques: Locals use a crop rotation system that preserves the area’s biodiversity and maintains soil fertility. A commitment to preserving popular geological features, such as the hot springs at Shirogane Onsen, are a bonus.

While Manteigas in Portugal has great hiking trails, the local government plans to enhance its wool-producing heritage. — Wikimedia CommonsWhile Manteigas in Portugal has great hiking trails, the local government plans to enhance its wool-producing heritage. — Wikimedia Commons

Manteigas, Portugal

A 3.5-hour drive north from Lisbon takes you to this idyllic mountain town where colourful houses (and the balconied Casa de São Lourenco hotel) punctuate a boulder-filled landscape that’s carved with jaw-dropping hiking trails.

What distinguishes Manteigas from other Alpine-style paradises is the local government’s plan to augment the area’s wool-producing heritage.

The blankets, shoes and throws you can buy here are made with a local technique that makes for ultrasoft, durable, waterproof wares; shop for them at the Burel wool factory or during the newly minted Land Wool Innovation Week, which brings together weavers, shepherds and designers each spring.

Paucartambo in Peru has interesting annual festivals. — Wikimedia CommonsPaucartambo in Peru has interesting annual festivals. — Wikimedia Commons

Paucartambo, Peru

Most tourists leave Cusco directly after visiting Machu Picchu, but if you’re in Peru’s Sacred Valley area in July, a day trip two hours north will lead to the tiny Andean village of Paucartambo. There, you can participate in a kaleidoscopic festival celebrating la Virgen del Carmen, which in Spain concerns nautical matters but in Paucartambo conflates the Catholic Virgin Mary with Pachamama, or Mother Earth.

More than a dozen folkloric groups don costumes and masks to parade down cobblestoned streets over the course of four days that usually begin on July 15.

Visiting Paucartambo also brings a chance to meet the Q’eros people, which some anthropologists consider direct descendants of the Inca; witness traditional hand-weaving practices they use to produce supersoft alpaca wool sweaters, shawls and ponchos.

Tan Hoa, Vietnam

Even if there were nothing around them, the extensive Tú Làn cave system would be worth the 1.5-hour flight from Hanoi: The largest such system in the world, it’s filled with towering calcite formations and otherworldly lakes that glow in neon colours.

Aboveground are karst mountains and limestone cliffs – along with the village of Tan Hoa (population 3,000), where you can visit local homes for a farm-to-table dinner featuring dishes such as poi, a cassava flour-based rice dish with beans.

Oxalis Adventure, a community-owned and operated outfitter, offers day trips as well as packaged multi-day tours, including overnights at its new Tú Làn Lodge and contemporary mountain cabins that hover over the hills on stilts.

(Another interesting thing about this village is that it is a “weather-adaptive tourism village. There are around 700 houses here which were specifically built to survive the frequent floods – by turning into a floating vessel of sorts!)

Tan Hoa, a flood-prone village, overcomes the challenges by building houses that can adapt to the changing weather. — https://tanhoavillage.comTan Hoa, a flood-prone village, overcomes the challenges by building houses that can adapt to the changing weather. — https://tanhoavillage.com

Caleta Tortel, Chile

If you’re up for an epic, multi-day road trip in Chile, the 2,400km drive from Santiago down Carretera Austral offers one of the country’s most scenic routes. On reaching the end of the road (after tacking on a short ferry ride), you’ll find the coastal fishing village of Caleta Tortel in the southernmost Aysén region of Chile’s Patagonia. You can fly from Santiago to Balmaceda to shorten the drive.

Once you reach the top of the village, you’ll explore only on foot: A stay at this car-free community involves walking miles of wooden boardwalks and staircases that hover over the Baker River beside colourful timber homes on stilts and tranquil water views.

Here, tourism is helping to preserve the way locals use woodworking to produce almost anything out of local timber. Meet local carpenters and watch them build wooden boats, then hop into one for a trip down the river. The village hosts an annual timber festival during the first week of February that celebrates its artisans with exhibits of their woodwork, barbecues and folkloric musical performances, all of which end in a community dance. – Bloomberg


Kampung Batu Puteh in Kinabatangan, Sabah was also a 'Best Tourism Village' in 2021. — unwto.orgKampung Batu Puteh in Kinabatangan, Sabah was also a 'Best Tourism Village' in 2021. — unwto.org

The Malaysian entry

IN 2021, Kampung Batu Puteh in Kinabatangan, Sabah, was placed on the Best Tourism Villages list for the resilience of its local community in preserving their culture and protecting the forest. According to the UNWTO website, in 1996, a group of visionary young folks from Kampung Batu Puteh took it upon themselves to upskill and learn how to make a living from rural tourism.

Three years of research, training and planning led the group to form four tourism associations across the village. They are: Miso Walai Homestay, Maya Do Talod Boat Service, Wayan Forest Guide Service and Monompos Culture Group. This happened in 2000, and after three years of operation, the tourism associations worked together to establish the Community Cooperative or KOPEL Bhd.

The purpose of KOPEL was to train and build local capacity to help conserve the surrounding ecosystem and local heritage, which encompasses traditional language, history, music and dance. At the same time, the cooperative also focused on generating income within the community through a variety of tourism activities and products like handicrafts and souvenirs.

As for sustainability, KOPEL and the villagers work together to restore the forest by replanting the right trees and plants, not just for the benefit of tourists, but also for the abundant wildlife that includes primates, birds and others. – Melody L. Goh

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