Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Sustainable Community-led Tourism

As a young Englishwoman staying in Bolivia for three months, I most definitely fall under the category of “tourist”. I had never previously considered the impact of tourism on an area as, and this is most likely a result of my Western upbringing, it is not a form of revenue that Britain generally depends on. However, my introduction to the community of Mallasa and their desire to bring the tourist trade to the local area has caused me to question the tourism industry as a whole. Is it a reliable source of income for developing countries? And if so, at what cost do the economic benefits come?

The night-time view of Illimani over La Paz
Tourism is seen as a strategy to bring revenue and status to developing countries. However, tourism as a tool for development is arguably often more damaging than beneficial to rural communities. Western tourists strive to be immersed in the stereotypical representations of the non-Western world, but all these images share a similar set of themes in that they are objectified, idealised and naturalised. As a Western development worker, I am embarrassed to confess that I shared this vision before my arrival in Bolivia, expecting the outlandish and the exotic but discovering myself in decidedly normal surroundings.
John Abbink, an anthropologist, discusses images and representations of non-Western individuals and argues that they “function as commodities,” thus allowing the tourist industry to promote exotic and unrealistic portrayals of individuals. I was surprised to discover through my research that there is a conscious effort on behalf of local people in such destinations to embellish their bodies according to Western expectations in exchange for money. Another anthropologist, David Turtin, argues that this is akin to “skin prostitution” and I would be inclined to agree. Western tourism claims to desire the authenticity and heritage of an area, whereas the stark reality of the situation is that the culture of rural areas has become a commodity, to be caricatured and displayed to its visitors. As a tool for development, the tourism industry may be creating economic opportunities, but surely this is at the cost of exploiting rural societies and stunting cultural growth by promoting constant notions of ‘authenticity’?

The UN recognises the potential of tourism in delivering positive social change to developing countries that need it the most. They plan to utilise the industry to fight poverty through the UNWTO Sustainable Tourism – Eliminating Poverty programme. Despite this, there is a consistent problem with leakages – where the overall profit from tourism escapes to international companies – meaning that the economic benefits do not reach the poorer classes of a country. Further examples of leakage, perhaps more relevant to my current placement, can be seen in Peru where th  ere is a continuing discrepancy between the economic benefits of the government and local communities. For the four day Inka trail, a park fee is charged by the government of $50 per tourist and $10 per porter. However, there is a stark lack of evidence showing government investment into Sanctuary facilities, while local communities suffer under the burden of poor wages. Whilst porters are legally owed $40 per four day trip, a majority are paid less than $20 per trip. Thus in places like Bolivia, while tourism is contributing economically, the benefits are reaped by the government and there is little positive impact on the local communities.

From left to right: Sophie Greenwood, Joseph Seph and Hannah Skidmore giving English classes
I have been placed within the family-run charity UpClose, as one of the teachers of the English classes held in Mallasa. The students here range from schoolchildren to adults working in the local community; all possess an endearing level of patience with our pidgin Spanish and a clear enthusiasm to learn English. Although some students are keen to learn it in order to access opportunities in Western society, the key source of the demand for English lessons seems to be centred on a communal aspiration to increase tourism, and thus trade, in Mallasa and Jupapina. It is concerning as a volunteer to consider the consequences that could result from Mallasa becoming a tourist-based community. For Bolivia, though, a different kind of tourism seems to be at hand. Community-based tourism is defined by Tourism Concern as a type which “aims to include and benefit local communities.” It also focuses on rural areas with indigenous populations; hence the label is entirely applicable to Mallasa.

Bolivia may be the poorest country in South America in terms of wealth; however, the country is rich in terms of culture, landscape and tourist potential. Mallasa itself is rife with such opportunities, with attractions such as the zoo and further prospects within the beautiful, mountainous surroundings. Significantly, the tourism in Bolivia is encouraged by the inhabitants and is beneficial to the whole community, having positive economic and social impacts within society. A clear example of this which I encountered during my time here is the employees of a local hotel and at the Valle de la Luna having requested extra English classes, specifically focusing on phrases and language related to tourism. This demonstrates, without question, a working model of community tourism as the people of Mallasa collectively aspire to attract Western visitors, whilst boosting local business and trade. This is an idea of tourism obstinately opposed to the model seen in Peru and other developing countries, wherein governments encourage tourism at the expense of the poorer communities.

Rainbow over UpClose in Jupapina
Although community-based tourism could offer a solution to the more obviously damaging nature of the tourism industry, it is far from a perfect model. Jane Caffernan writes that although community tourism is led by people living in the area, it often depends on the more educated in the local area to liaise with larger tourist companies for commercial purposes. As a result, this excludes those who have little education or language skills, forcing them to work in the lower ranks of the tourism trade and enhancing existing divisions within society. Caffernan goes on to describe how women are generally relegated to domestic work involved in keeping tourists, when often they would prefer to progress to a higher role in the industry but simply do not have the education available.
This is especially striking to me as the concept of ‘machismo’ and gender inequality is hugely visible in Bolivia, and my classes are dominated by women and young girls. UpClose as an organisation, through the provision of English classes in my case, ensure that education is available to individuals of all genders and economic status. This education allows the residents of Mallasa to be in charge of their own tourism industry rather than depending upon a larger company stepping in and causing divisions within such a tight-knit rural community. The town, though small, is a shining example of community tourism and I have no doubt that the industry in Mallasa will one day thrive to the benefit of its residents. However, the question remains: when looking at countries in the South dominated by the tourism industry, how effective is tourism as a tool for development? And at what societal cost does economic development occur? Community based tourism is an improvement, but a level needs to be reached wherein the process benefits local communities without the sacrifice or exploitation of their indigenous culture and resources.

Written by: Hannah Skidmore
Edited by: Liam Hilton

Editor’s Note: Hannah’s article was chosen for publication in the Inspira magazine and this entry will be updated with information of the publication once it has gone to print.


  1. I most definitely fall under the category of “tourist”. I had never previously considered the impact of tourism on an area as.sustainable tourism