Promoting indigenous tourism in Latin America
Indigenous communities across Latin America are harnessing tourism as a means for empowerment. We have been working in partnership with dozens of these communities for many years and in 2018 we decided to take a step further and became members of the World Indigenous Tourism Alliance (WINTA). Even during the pandemic, we continue to support indigenous communities in Latin America in a way that allows them to work with tourism at their own pace and on their own terms, always respecting their culture and lifestyle. We are proud to be part of this global network that is focusing on promoting the rights of all the indigenous peoples.
Why WINTA’s work is important
In recent years, a quest for authentic and unique travel experiences has led to an increment in the demand for indigenous tourism, a type of tourism where ethnic or tribal culture is at the heart of the attraction. At the same time, many indigenous communities have been struggling to maintain their traditional ways of life and to protect their lands in this increasingly globalised world. Within this context, the work of WINTA is crucial.
WINTA is an indigenous-led alliance that uses tourism as a vehicle to advance the well-being of indigenous populations. The alliance was established in 2012 to help ensure the implementation of the Larrakia Declaration. Broadly centered on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007), the Larrakia Declaration (2012) encourages a tourism development based on equitable and sustainable partnerships, respect for indigenous culture, intellectual property and land, and community empowerment and well-being.
Many indigenous communities live in areas currently at risk due to the expansion of industrial activities (mainly farming, mining and oil), as well as global phenomena such as climate change and deforestation. Moreover, they have increasingly challenging relationships with their own traditional cultures, languages and ways of life. Indeed, finding a path towards sustainable development that balances both internal and external pressures to modernise, with the desire to maintain communities and traditions intact, is not easy.
Tourism as a viable livelihood choice
Although it may not seem like an obvious solution, some indigenous communities have identified sustainable tourism as an economic activity to provide for their families whilst at the same time safeguarding their cultural heritage and traditional knowledge.
In practice, tourism can provide a setting in which to showcase traditions and is often attributed for injecting a new sense of pride into community members. Further, tourism can also make communities aware of the immense value that wildlife and pristine natural settings have for conscious travellers, thus providing additional incentives for creating eco-friendly activities and fostering environmental protection.
The alternatives can be bleak: short-term gains made by selling land rights to oil and mining companies, communities torn apart due to emigration to bigger towns or cities, and traditional beliefs being shunned in favour of more dominant cultures. For instance, The Guardian travel writer, Kevin Rushby, illustrates the stark choice some communities face in his article Ecuador’s Yasuni park: where oil vies with tourism for the rainforest. For the communities that do choose tourism, it is essential that this happens within a context of self-determination.
Ensuring that the rights of indigenous peoples take center stage
The work of organisations such as WINTA helps ensure the rights of indigenous peoples take center stage during the planning and implementation of new tourism ventures, including how these are then managed and marketed. To fulfil its aims, WINTA develops practical tools to implement the Larrakia Declaration, provides specialist advisory services on indigenous rights-based tourism and facilitates the sharing of resources and best practice through its global network.
Travellers themselves have an important role to play too. Whether or not to visit remote indigenous communities can be an ethical dilemma for travellers wanting to do ‘the right’ thing. Sadly, there are still too many examples of indigenous peoples being exploited by unequal and damaging relationships when working with tourism, so it is always worth asking a few questions about how the accommodation and excursions are run. For example, travellers should ask who benefits financially, who manages the tourism venture and what policies are being put in place by the tour operator or travel agency in order to promote respect for indigenous communities’ culture and to preserve their environment.
Positive examples of indigenous tourism in Latin America
Our blog bears testament to how indigenous tourism in Latin America can be a viable and beneficial livelihood choice when managed and marketed respectfully. From the heart of the Mayan world in Mexico to the remote and stunning landscapes of Patagonia, in desert, mountain, beach, island and jungle settings, we have been working with indigenous communities who have decided to use tourism to help preserve their traditional ways of life and precious natural resources. Our ethos, fair trade principles and trusted partnerships help ensure indigenous tourism creates beneficial outcomes both for travellers and indigenous communities.
Most recently, we heard about the Pueblos Mancomunados in Oaxaca, Mexico. Here, forward-thinking locals got together in the 1990s to set up low impact tourism businesses as means for sustainable development. They have since developed a highly successful network of hiking trails that link eight villages in the mountains of Oaxaca, marketing and selling their tourism offer through a community-owned cooperative. With at least 90% of income going directly into the communities, tourism is having a tangible positive impact for these ‘People of the Clouds’.
Another example comes from travellers Ann and Geoff, who spent three weeks hosted by an indigenous family in the rural highlands of northern Ecuador and three days staying at an indigenous community-run lodge and biodiversity hotspot deep in the Amazon rainforest. In a series of blog posts, they told us how they were able to gain a special glimpse into the daily lives, challenges and hopes of their hosts. Ann and Geoff also explained how tourism is empowering indigenous communities and contributing to preserve their rich ecological and cultural heritage for generations to come.
We have also written about Mayan jungle adventures in the Yucatan Peninsula (Mexico), homestays with Mayan communities in Lake Atitlan (Guatemala), walking with the Lickan Antay people in the Atacama desert (Chile), and staying with the Shipetiari community in the Peruvian Amazon and the Mapuche people in the south of Chile.
We will continue to grow our network and strengthen our work with indigenous communities throughout the continent. If you are interested in experiencing this for yourself, you can visit our sustainable destinations page and send a travel request.
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