Maria Boccalandro


Answer: Yes it is, and we have proof.

We want to share a few examples of how sustainable tourism is being developed in Central and South America, because in many ways rural New Mexico has similar characteristics. New Mexico has beautiful natural environments, a rich and diverse cultural heritage and a large volume of tourists that visit the state’s major cities. Even though these visitors spend money on products and services, severe socio-economic challenges for the communities still exist. There is poverty, school dropouts, petty crime and lack of jobs for the youth, who end up leaving in order to be able to support a family. So, the question is, how can tourism serve as an economic development strategy for the local community while preserving cultural heritage and the natural environment?

The solution is sustainable tourism that is committed to the triple bottom line: people, planet and profit. It is no longer enough to ask, “Will it make money?” In order to start a business, we must ask what the impact to the people and to the environment will be as well. Here are some case studies that illustrate the point:

Margarita is the largest island in the Venezuelan state of Nueva Esparta, situated off the northeastern coast in the Caribbean Sea. Because it is a tax-free port, the primary economic activities are tourism, fishing, construction and commerce. El Tirano is a traditional fishing village on the isolated part of the island. Poverty and unemployment are the basic problems here. The Venezuelan Secretary of Tourism contracted my husband and me to present a series of workshops for El Tirano’s community to identify new income opportunities for its citizens. In these workshops the Fishermen’s Association saw an opportunity to offer scuba diving trips in partnership with a local diving school. Since many tourists are foreigners and need guided tours in different languages, the local English teachers, in collaboration with the municipal tourism office, designed a basic course to teach fishermen and scuba instructors how to serve international tourists. They also identified a need to educate visitors on ecological practices that protect the environment. That information could be shared in several languages with the help of the language teachers and local government. This is an example of a touristic cluster that came into focus by creating an opportunity for the stakeholders to meet and share their expectations, needs and strengths, and discuss how they could offer products and services to tourists.

El Yaque, on the south of the island, has constant ideal conditions for windsurfing during six months of the year. This has made it a destination for European tourists, especially from Germany. During those months the whole community works for the hotels and restaurants. When the wind dies down, so does work; the hotels close their doors and people are laid off. In the community meetings we facilitated, a strategy was designed to promote tourism from the main Venezuelan cities, as well as to engage the tourists already on the island during the offseason. The local windsurfing school partnered with local bed-and-breakfasts and offered a water sports summer camp for children. Because of the promotion by local tourism agencies to local tourists from other parts of the island and Venezuelan cities, during the first year of operation they had campers from Margarita and from five major cities. In addition to water sports, campers were able to learn about the wildlife on the island and how to preserve it.

Be it Isla Margarita or Santa Fe, the resources for sustainable tourism are already in place. Often what is necessary is education, training and development to put all the pieces together. Along with the collection of pertinent data, a series of process-oriented workshops amongst all stakeholders to identify the problems that must be addressed and the resources available is crucial. The greatest success comes when a large part of the community is involved in the development of the plan. This creates a sense of ownership and a greater commitment to making things work. Each member of a community has unique and important contributions that can be indentified and used for the betterment of the whole.

Another similarity with NM is that in the south of Venezuela there are native Indians. The natural resources there are very beautiful but also very fragile. The national park of Canaima in Bolivar state is home of the highest waterfall in the world, Angel Falls, which international tourists visit year-round.

Most of the tourism products and services offered there have not been helping the economic development of the local communities. Local tourism authorities have made regulations to help the Indians become providers for the tourists. The Indians can only operate transportation for tourists with their dugout canoes, the Indians’ main means of transportation. The challenge was that the canoes did not meet safety standards, and the Indians were not able to communicate with the international tourists. The Association of Tour Guides negotiated with the German Embassy to provide German classes and with a nonprofit to train the local guides in safety procedures so they can offer safe services in the tourists’ language. One of the Indian guides could not master the German language. He decided to contact the Japanese Embassy and went to one of the main cities of Bolivar state to learn basic Japanese. He is now the guide who can work with Japanese tourists.

Another example of how the sustainable tourism model has been applied is at Vargas state on the coast of the Caribbean. The beaches and warm water offer a great tourist attraction, but there are few recreational activities, so the tourists would swim, eat and leave. The only businesses benefiting were food-and-beverage vendors and the hotels. The local tourism authority asked my husband, Daniel, to design a series of workshops to assist the community in identifying recreational activities that they could provide. They were asked to identify their vocation and unique, innovative products and services they could offer on the beaches. The premise was that with minimal investment, employment could be created for the youth who were leaving for the big cities, seeking employment. This is in contrast to the fact that often when we think of tourism generating jobs, we only think of hotels and restaurants, which require large capital investments.

Much of the population of the coast of Vargas state are descendants from Africa and have unique drum dances that are associated with Catholic holidays. These traditions were in danger of being lost because of the youth leaving for the cities. Traditionally, these fertile lands were used for coffee and cocoa farms. Once Venezuela became a petroleum-exporting nation, those traditional products were abandoned. A folkloric dance teacher and a traditional drum group decided to partner up and train the youth to play the drums and learn the traditional dances as group exercise classes. An artisan chocolate maker partnered with a massage school and created a cocoa-coconut cream for massages and spa treatments. The local tourism authority financed technical assistance to help them create business plans and find grants to start operating. Thirty drum/dance/therapy groups have now been trained, and local artisans have built traditional drums for the trainees to go to the beaches and offer exercise classes. This collaboration has helped revive and share their traditions while generating new sustainable jobs in the tourism sector. The new massage cream is in the process of getting the permits necessary to be produced as a marketable product. Funds to construct a manufacturing plant are being negotiated. Local masseuses are being trained, and portable massage tables will be bought with grant money for economical development.

The last example we want to show is in Caracas, Venezuela’s capital, in a traditional part of the city called La Pastora. This was the original entrance to the valley where Caracas was founded by Spanish conquerors. The “Camino de los Españoles” was a winding road that connected the main port in colonial times with the valley of Caracas. La Pastora has a traditional colonial blueprint with the plaza surrounded by the Cathedral and important official historic buildings. Unfortunately, with the growth of the city, it has been surrounded by poverty-stricken ghettos, and many of the cultural and architectural treasures have been forgotten.

Caracas, being the home of many corporation headquarters, banks and government agencies, is known for corporate tourists. Other capital cities of Latin America have preserved the colonial parts of their cities; unfortunately, Caracas is known more for its modern parts. The Metropolitan Authority of Tourism wanted to develop products and services in the oldest part of the city to generate employment for the community. We coordinated a series of meetings with all the stakeholders with the objective of attracting tourism to La Pastora. It was a community-strengthening process where establishing security and information for tourists was key. A group of municipal police officers were trained to keep the tourists safe and well informed. A partnership between the historical society and the neighborhood associations gave birth to a local destination management company, a “one-stop” place where tourists can plan their visit. Since transportation through the small streets was an issue, an old tramway was restored and will provide transportation for the tourists.

All these examples show how the solutions to poverty and unemployment can come from sustainable tourism. Yes this requires work; the local community must come together and discover their “niche” in the products and services offered. The projects to promote economical development through tourism are in the community members’ dreams and aspirations. The question is, how can we empower and collaborate with the local community so these ideas become sustainable tourism projects?




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