Last month, I attended a wonderful conference on Community Tourism in Chile. We were invited based on a contact made when Channel 13 news came to the community (refer to a previous blog). It was a struggle to find sufficient funding for both a leader in the community and Claudio, the coordinator of MATE to attend, but after many emails, and persistent funding requests, we were fortunate to purchase the 2 and half hour flight and ten hour bus ride to San Pedro de Atacama, located in northern Chile. The community selected Raul, a 25 year old, charismatic and intelligent coordinator of the future tourism company to represent them at the conference.
Before making our way to Chile, our motely crüe stopped in Salta for a few days where making contacts and promotion of our organization began. Below is a photo of Raul and Claudio speaking with a radio station in Salta, a city in northwestern Argentina.
Next was Chile. Travloution organized the conference. They are an NGO that works to protect and enhance, on a global level, community tourism development. They are a network who bring together travellers with local communities to foster the sustainable development of both the communities and travelers. In the desert we found a diverse set of entrepreneurs from all areas of community tourism: from the more established who run tourism travel companies, sell artisan goods, own cabins and hotels and even people like us in the primary stages of their company. There were entrepreneurs from Perú and Colombia as well, from cities, farms, and also indigenous communities.
The first presentation set up the weekend with an exploration of what community tourism is. Community tourism it is an activity that, if well managed, can become a tool of sustainability and a safeguard of cultural heritage. It energizes local economies, and promotes the participation and control of the community and their heritage. He continued to discuss that a community’s motivations to participate in community tourism, is to promote their identity, strive for respect and visibility, and self manage their businesses. The most important aspect is that it is controlled and maintained by the community. At one point, Claudio leaned in to me and said “no estamos tan mal en nuestro camino, no?” “We aren’t doing that bad in our path, eh?” And he is right. Project MATE, although still in the preliminary stages, is without question making the necessary strides towards the requirements this presenter listed, the most important one being that a responsible and community tourism company is controlled by the community.
Raul presented next. The audience was very receptive and impressed with how far the community had progressed since MATE formed 7 years ago. While the end goal of a fully self managed tourism company has still yet to formally come together, a lot has been done. Raul discussed the escuelita, and the workshops that are held there: communication, computers, English, Mbya Guarani culture, and administration. He talked about the grant and the process of the building of the Visitor’s Centre. And most importantly, he explained how although it has been a journey with the ‘blancos,’ the community has maintained control of all decisions and will eventually be on their own without outside help.
This conference was unlike the other conference on tourism organized by ITEP. Unlike the typical formal presentation after presentation, after every two presentations the conference would break for forty minutes. There would be time for coffee and snacks, but more importantly the participants would attend informal workshops. At a table of 9, we were given questions to prompt discussion on the themes presented. Members from the same community or organization were split up to different tables, which offered for varied responses and the sharing of different experiences. It was brilliant idea. We were able to further explore the topics and share our stories and opinions that cannot sufficiently be expressed in the short Q+A period after a presentation. The workshops were also recorded in order for Travelotion to get feedback on the presentations, prepare for next years conference, and gain ideas to develop ‘the network’ that I will discuss shortly. I think these workshops added to not only the relaxed and close knit atmosphere of the entire weekend, but also allowed for interactive and enhanced learning for all participants. The following main three themes were discussed: the profile of a tourist, certification, and the formation of a network.
Our group discussed that the profile of a tourist who participates in community tourism is someone who wants to explore their spirituality. In some cases the tourist is looking for an inner learning experience, or, even beyond that, a transformation. This type of tourists seeks tranquility and craves an opportunity to disconnect from their lives. They desire a new experience and often want to interactively participate and further involve themselves in the community beyond a typical rigid tour. The last comment led me to think of an idea of having an artisan course back in the Yyryapu community. Instead of only displaying for purchase the beautiful craftsmanship goods, the community could offer a short workshop to a large group. Thus, they would not only get to take home a keepsake, but can return with a memory of learning from someone in the community and experience the rewards of hand making something.
We also discussed certification. Certification entails a government regulated standard for all companies related to tourism. It does not yet exist in Chile and due language barriers and its vague subject, I think it would be similar to TICO. Our group mainly agreed that big companies should have to pay for certification, since many of our groups are barely turning a profit. There are many benefits to certification, however. It sets a quality standard to assure satisfaction to the client. It would offer transparency, prevent risks for the visitors, and offer necessary information. It can also help improve and regulate management. Of course beyond money monetary issues, certification could standardize touristic services, which can hinder the riqueza, (richeness, authenticity; there is not really an adequate translation) of community tourism.
The main idea of Traveloution is to create a network for community tourism in Chile. We discussed its benefits, functions, and of course its potential problems. Much of the entire weekend’s goal was to survey the ideas of those in community tourism of what such a network would look like. We decided that the benefits of it are: strengthen the identity of locals, increase the number of tourists that participate in community tourism, organize tours and exchanges, support the organization of community tourism, distribute the demand, offer relatable experiences, and share solutions to problems. The idea is for the network to be running in a few years. Although, before the formal establishment of the network, all the contacts that were made over the weekend will begin to be put to use now. Someone even said near the end of the weekend when discussing how well the conference and planning for the network went, that the real magic happens after the conference. Although our organization is not Chile, and we will not be formally apart of the network, I’m looking forward to how the magia, magic is spread to us. Already the weekend has provided us with numerous success stories that gave us motivation, and many ideas that we will share with those in Yyryapu.
After the conference there was an excellent market where the communities displayed and sold their craftsman goods. As well we had the opportunity to explore the surroundings area of San Pedro de Atacama. We visited Valle de la Luna, Valley of the Moon, a moon-like landscape with ruins of old Chilean salt mines. We also biked 32km to a gorgeous lagoon with a volcano nearby in the middle of the desert, and visited a natural hot spring.
Those we met were more than just contacts over the weekend. The number of attendees made for a weekend of lots of socializing. A large group of us would share meals together and then meet again over music and drinks. Something I often highlight to others who don’t understand the travelling bug is how friendships are accelerated when travelling. Raul and I attended the same meetings for two months. We exchanged many words, mainly formal ones, and once we shared a few laughs when we worked together on his power point for the presentation. The conference gave us an opportunity to see each other on two hours of sleep, when USB keys wouldn’t work, and when altitude dizziness came into play. And that’s what’s great about travelling: aspects of people that you would only see after perhaps years of friendship and even living together, you get to see in a quick two weeks. As well, waiting for planes and luggage, and meetings to start, and files to upload, offers a lot of room for conversation. And around a campfire on the last night Raul and I agreed that due to the conference, we became beyond companeros (peers/work colleges) and now can call each other amigos.