The World Tourism Organization is celebrating World Tourism Day with a special theme, Tourism and Community Development. It’s important that those of us who spend on tourism do so in a responsible manner. That isn’t always as easy as it sounds.
As all of us are out there looking for travel bargains, we are bound to spend some of our money in ways that do not promote responsible tourism. For example, everyone wants to visit Machu Picchu but few visitors understand the conditions under which porters are hired and used when they schedule their 4-day Inca Trail excursion. Our travels in South America have made us more aware of inequality and made us more inclined to research our trips in a different way than before. Today, we look not only for a bargain but also for tour companies that work with local communities in ways that help preserve culture and identity while bringing in cash dollars. At the same time, they make sure that local guides, porters, hotel staff, etc. are fairly compensated for their work.
This isn’t as easy as it sounds as there are no international standards. And sometimes we go on a trip that is supposed to be sustainable and fair and find things that are not. Many of these partnerships are still works in progress. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use them or promote them but it does mean we need to take an additional step after our trip is finished. When things aren’t working it is our responsibility to report the problems so that a tour company is given the opportunity to improve.
Our latest trip to the jungle is a perfect example. I spent days reading information about different trips and tours into the Yasuni National Park. After extensive research, I narrowed our choice down to two companies, the Napo Wildlife Center and the Huaorani Lodge. We chose the later for a couple of reasons. They are an ecolodge. Again, no international standards to follow so we had to take this claim at face value. They also advertised cultural exchange via a local guide and visits with the local community. Interaction is important as we didn’t want a repeat of our trip to Casa del Suizo where the tourism industry has developed into a show and tell kind of experience. The description of the visit to the Huaorani Lodge also focused on lots of opportunities to see wildlife. We were sold.
Unfortunately, the trip was not 100% what we expected. When I returned home, I spent a long time deciding what to do because I don’t want to hurt potential business for the Huaorani. They are straddling a divide as they strive to retain the culture and tradition of a people that once widely roamed the jungle but are know forced to live in villages and find ways to survive in a modern state government. Their experiment with sustainable tourism is largely succeeding and I will write much more about the positive experiences we had while visiting their community. But the tourism company that arranged for our visit has some work to do. They hired a guide who was supposed to work in partnership with the local Huaorani guide. The partnership part of the equation was seriously lacking. The relationship felt very paternalistic, which is ironic considering our English speaking guide was a woman. She very often felt a need to tell us that speaking to the local children was a waste of time as they couldn’t understand our Spanish. She didn’t enjoy birdwatching and let us know that it was not high on her list of favorites. Yet she was not only supposed to be a translator (Spanish to English) but a naturalist guide. And in fact, her translating abilities were only fair and as my family understands and speaks a lot of Spanish, we may have been better off working directly with our Huaorani guide. Granted, this isn’t a choice for all tourists but it could be a choice for some.
The tour company responded with several emails back and forth and has since decided that they need to better understand the needs of visiting tourists so that they can match guides with the interests of the tourists. Therefore folks like us who wanted to see birds (and other wildlife) would be matched with a guide that had the same interests. The guide we worked with will be taking a break from working with the Huaorani in hopes that she will regain some of what the company called the “Wao Magic.” And there was talk of starting a better training program for guides as well. This is something that would greatly benefit the partnership.
Our final day at the Huaorani Lodge was spent differently than that of most tourists. We were returning to Shell via airplane rather than taking the boat trip to Coca. As we waited for the plane to arrive (on jungle time), it gave us ample opportunity to speak with one of the Huaorani who has been working hard to promote sustainable tourism in the area. And he told us about so many problems, most related to the relationship with their partner company and some related to working with the government of Ecuador. His options for solutions are limited. The Huaorani do not have the infrastructure needed to go it alone. They have little electricity and the electricity that exists is solar. Cloudy afternoons make it hard to even charge a camera battery much less a computer. They have no internet. There are no telephones only satellite radio. A few people own cellphones but we were told they own them to take photos that they later delete as they run out of space on their phones. They have no cellphone coverage in the jungle. The Huaorani cannot build a successful business model without partners in Quito.
I tell you this not to make you wring your hands and gnash your teeth at your own tourism decisions. All we can do is try our best. But when we uncover issues as we travel, it is best we be honest about what we find. And I hope that the company working with the Huaorani works to find a true partnership sometime soon. They could be a shining example of how sustainable tourism can work right for both sides and how neither partner needs to feel as if they are getting a raw deal. Currently, they are a fair example of a company that is trying hard.