Sustainable tourism is a sub-branch of sustainable development that was put on the world agenda with the publication of the Bruntland report. The report focused on environmental issues and the natural environment has remained a central theme. Socio- cultural issues have been overshadowed or marginalised. Community participation, although considered essential in sustainable tourism, is a concept subject to much interpretation. Based on longitudinal action research this case study, from Eastern Indonesia, provides theoretical coverage and practical ideas of how community par- ticipation can be moved from the passive, rhetorical end of the participation scale towards empowerment. Tourism has the potential to empower communities and the sustainable tourism agenda needs to focus on how to bring this about. As the case study illustrates, understanding tourists and tourism processes is the first stage to empowering the local community to make informed and appropriate decisions about their tourism development. Considerable investments are required in communication and trust building between the actors in tourism. This paper examines how action research, focus groups and the creation of a tourism forum can be concrete, first steps towards achieving sustainable tourism development in the 21st century.