Can travelling be a better experience, both for the traveller and for the host community? If you are not reading this blog for the first time, you know I have been writing about how community-based tourism can be a tool for sustainable development, and about several destinations where this type of tourism is successfully conducted, such as the small fishing towns in the coast of Brazil and the rural communities in Argentina. This week, we show a responsible tourism approach in landlocked Bolivia, a country with epic landscapes, snow-capped mountain peaks, and tropical forests set within Latin America’s Andean highlands.
The story starts some years back when a number of farming and indigenous communities began experimenting with homestay tourism. The essential idea was to supplement traditional livelihoods such as farming with some relatively small-scale tourism revenue, on terms that would be acceptable to the community. What emerged from a series of sometimes spontaneous initiatives were common values and ways of thinking. In keeping with local traditions, the approach has been cooperative and solidarity-based, meaning that the work and the benefits are shared within the community. Tourism is built around the fabric of the communities’ current culture, lifestyle, environmental practices and values, not imposed upon these things from the outside.
What was missing was a link between supply and demand – marketing channels that could connect these communities with potential tourists sympathetic to the idea of community-based tourism. This has emerged when the different Bolivian communities formed a national network, the Red Tusoco, which in time created a tour operator to commercialise the products and services offered by the communities. It also links to international tour operators who are prepared to work with them on a fair trade basis. So with us, for example, it is possible to see Bolivia in a better way. Here I name a few reasons.
First one is that the guides are part of the local communities. Visiting Lake Titicaca, the ancestral home of Inca and pre-Inca cultures going back thousands of years, is better when your guides are themselves direct descendants of those civilizations. A second one is that apart from some hotel stays, you are also living with the communities, such as in the Challa community guest houses on the sacred Sun Island in Lake Titicaca, or in the eco-lodges run by indigenous communities in Madidi National Park, one of the world’s largest protected wildlife areas. A third is that you have a direct, one-to-one dialogue with the locals. In the Uyuni, where you’ll find the world’s largest salt flats, with its surreal slow-growing cacti and pink flamingos, Aymara people are happy to explain their way of life to interested foreigners and to show how sustainable tourism is working for them, something our travellers Mala and Anna experienced first-hand while backpacking in South America last year. In a country often suspicious of foreigners (with good reason: back in the nineteenth century Britain supported a war against Bolivia partly to get access to salt deposits), the community tourism model allows for a completely different type of conversation.