Before the spread of Covid-19, tourism provided a promising approach to sustainable development, a path for indigenous communities to alleviate poverty, increase access to healthcare and education, and to conserve their cultural and natural resources.
One of the ways in which these communities had been able to tap into the increase in global tourism was Community-based Tourism. In this model, people living in a community offer their services (lodging, food, guiding, transportation, etc.) in an associative way. They may or may not belong to an indigenous group. At the same time, the model currently labelled as Indigenous Tourism and that is exercised by indigenous communities, may or may not be deployed in a community-based model.
Over the past few years, a trend towards a different kind of tourism had been observed, at least in certain destinations. “More and more people wanted to shift away from a fancy hotel with luxury bedroom and more towards a model of tourism based on experience,” said Juan Marambio, from Travolution Latin America. “Those tourists want to have an experience close to nature, and with people who can transmit the values of indigenous people and rural communities.”
In conjunction to this paradigm shift, there was also the importance given to the fact that the revenues generated from those visits would be perceived by the local communities themselves, as opposed to collected by a transnational tour operator or large hotel chain. There’s been a re-valorization of ancient cultures, traditions, and oral histories. “The stories that were told by the grand parents and great grand parents, now they are being valued by the tourism industry,” said Marambio. Up to the beginning of 2020, rural tourism was being perceived a soft tool of persuasion to create cultural awareness across different levels of society.
The pandemic of 2020, however, has taken a substantial toll on indigenous communities’ revenue streams. It has underscored the degree to which they continue to be marginalized, both economically and socially.
“In Guatemala, tourism is the number to engine of revenue in the country,” said Inocente Cutzán, President of the Senderos del Alto Cooperative. “Right now 85% of the companies and industries are closed because of the pandemic. This has generated an outstanding number of unemployed people.”
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Up to 45% of the population in Guatemala is of indigenous origin. Tourism had offered a door to resources and development not at the cost but thanks to the value seen in their own traditions. One of the key challenges right now is that some communities feel torn: some want to kick-start tourism and the revenues it entails; others see it as potential risk of infection and contagion.
In many cases, there is lack of access to basic necessities— including water, medical supplies and healthcare services— so many communities have had to lock down themselves and return to self-reliance, at least until the situation improves. But when will that happen?
The steps taken so far toward a smooth restart of tourism have been in the form of safety and health protocols to protect visitors and tourism workers alike. In the case of Quintana Roo, in the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, it has been mostly European agencies who have developed the concept of Community-based Tourism. Now, with the travel and sanitary restrictions imposed, the local communities have had to implement health protocols at a lightning speed if they wish to receive any tourists.
From the 12th to the 16th of October, the Indigenous Tourism Forum of the Americas tried to address some of the questions linked to the challenges faced by the sector and propose ways to cope with the difficult outlook ahead. How can communities plan for the future and use tourism—along with forestry, agriculture and arts and crafts—to generate income? How can they increase understanding and appreciation of their stories, traditions and challenges?
The world may eventually start to recover from the pandemic and tourists with rural-tourism awareness will continue to explore new places, revisit those they know well. The will seek inspiration in new connections with nature and other cultures.