Rural tourism is an increasingly recognized tourism sector in southern Africa, and with increasing tourist visitations to local communities it has a great potential to benefit local development and well-being. In order to maximize the benefits and minimize the costs, rural communities should be able to participate actively in all aspects of tourism, including planning and management.
The main purpose of this study is to analyse the perceptions of local communities and their awareness, involvement in and benefits from tourism. This was approached on the basis of survey and interview materials from local rural communities and local authorities (nature reserve managers, tourism officers, environmental/conservation officers and Conservation Committee Forum members) in the Katse and Mohale Tourism Development Area of Lesotho. Thus the mixed method research design was selected, using qualitative and quantitative approaches to derive descriptive statistics. Non-probability, purposive and convenience sampling approaches were used to gather the data. The study was conducted in three villages adjacent to the T‟sehlanyane Nature Reserve - Ha „Mali, Bokong Nature Reserve -Ha Lejone and Liphofung Nature Reserve - Phelandaba.
The information gathered was used to formulate a model of the elements influencing rural tourism benefit-sharing processes in rural local community contexts. Such model could be beneficial as without a strong emphasis on local benefit-sharing, Lesotho people, especially in the rural areas, would probably not receive the potential benefits of tourism development in the future. Such a model would support communities‟ awareness of and participation in tourism development, leading to wider benefit-sharing in rural tourism.
Based on the results, the surveyed community members of Ha Lejone indicated having a relatively good awareness of the benefits of tourism. They also perceived that their environment attracted tourists and thus perceived that they could benefit more from tourism. By comparison, the respondents in Phelandaba perceived few benefits while the Ha „Mali respondents showed slightly more benefits. The results indicate that among the respondents from the villages, the Ha Lejone respondents were the most knowledgeable. Ha „Mali and Ha Lejone respondents recognized community members‟ participation but the Phelandaba respondents generally disagreed that the communities were involved in planning, as they indicated not being consulted in any planning about tourism. Phelandaba respondents agreed regarding the negative impacts of tourism, while those of Ha „Mali partially disagreed and Ha Lejone disagreed. Respondents from all three villages would prefer greater involvement and decision-making power in the management of tourism.
The study concludes that there should be provision for basic training and continuing educational workshops on tourism for all stakeholders, which could promote tourism awareness and positive perceptions of and attitudes towards tourism. Government should not merely construct conservation and tourism development areas but should also empower local communities to participate in all stages of planning, development and management. Involving community members in as well as formulating supporting tourism regulations, implementation, monitoring and evaluation procedures would be beneficial for sustainable rural tourism development. Partnership amongst all tourism-related stakeholders in rural tourism management is an ideal tool for promoting rural tourism.