Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, is one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations, a place where pristine beaches, awe-inspiring mountains and alluring jungles make up the varied terrain, and hundreds of thousands of travellers every year enjoy a vacation in Mexico unlike any other. When I first arrived, however, I was immediately struck by how many travellers miss out on what I view as Puerto Vallarta’s most noteworthy attraction: its local artisans.
Many of the most vibrant artistic, religious and culinary traditions of Mexico’s Bahia region survive only in its smaller communities, those areas that are less frequented by tourists but much more authentic and worth a visit. Close to Puerto Vallarta, for example, are villages where you can find people like Doña Elvira, a woman who makes tamales using a recipe that has been passed down for five generations. Or Javier, a fisherman who catches stingrays using tools he fashions himself.
While I have certainly enjoyed myself in both downtown Puerto Vallarta and its outdoor environs full of opportunities for outdoor adventures, long after my tan has faded I will most remember the local people I have met. It is for this reason that I am so happy to be working with an organisation called Investours that allows me to meet – and help support – such inspiring local people.
Making Beneficial Connections
Investours brings together socially responsible travellers visiting Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, with local artisans who have applied for loans to grow their small business projects. Each Investours tour visits a local artisan’s workshop, helping visitors to gain an intimate perspective on local culture, daily life and the challenges of operating a small business. Travellers also enjoy a traditional meal and several presentations about local foods and crafts. Most importantly, they leave knowing that their tour fees are become part of an interest-free loan for one of the artisans they meet.
What does each tour consist of? I’ll give you one recent example. This past March, Lupita, an artisan and resident of Bucerias, Nayarit, Mexico, invited the Investours staff and a family from Toronto into her home to show how she crafts her vibrant piñatas. She gave two young girls materials to make piñata versions of their favourite cartoon characters. Next, we met Doña Paty, who showed us how she paints bowls in the style of her hometown, Guerrero. She constructs her bowls out of clay by hand and then adorns them with beautiful designs of flowers, chilli peppers and geometric patterns.
Later, the Canadian family also visited Mari Chui in her hilltop home and sat down with her family to enjoy a traditional meal of enchiladas and chicken with mole sauce. While the family savoured a meal made with recipes passed down for generations, they learned of Mari Chui’s beautiful dream to open a restaurant on the roof of her house and call it “Buena Vista” (Good View).
At the end of the tour, everyone left with their hearts as full as their stomachs knowing that their US$39-per-person tour fee would support an interest-free loan for Lupita of 5,000 pesos or US$384.
Giving Critical Loans
Every Investours tour – intimate groups of no more than 10 people – supports one artisan, and every artisan is guaranteed an interest-free loan after participating in three tours. Many of our artisan clients have been through several loan cycles while they work to establish their businesses. They also benefit from regular financial literacy classes taught by our microfinance partner institution. For each project that Investours supports, loans average about US$500 in Mexico and US$200 in Tanzania.
Before working with Investours, I had never before fully understood the potential of travel to foster meaningful cross-cultural interactions and to contribute so directly to economic growth in developing countries. Tourism is a major source of foreign currency in developing countries and is commonly proclaimed a major driver of economic growth. Mexico, for example, is one of the 10 most-visited countries in the world, according to the UN World Tourism Organization; however, according to a 2010 census, half of Mexico’s population still lives below the poverty line.
Similarly, while Tanzania is well renowned as a tourist destination for its beautiful beaches, Mount Kilimanjaro and exotic safaris, 33.64 percent of the Tanzanian population was found to be living in conditions below the “basic needs poverty” line in the 2008 Millennium Development Goals Report.
In many cases, chain hotels and large tourism companies disenfranchise small businesses instead of working to promote local development. It is widely cited that two-thirds of revenue from international tourism does not make it to local economies because of a phenomenon called “exchange leakage.” Such statistics demonstrate the need for programs like Investours that connect tourism revenue directly with the people that benefit from it most.
Investours works to create authentic and enjoyable experiences for travellers that empower local small business owners. We do this by promoting small businesses, celebrating local culture, providing meaningful travel experiences and contributing directly to poverty alleviation in the communities where we operate. To date, we have used our tours’ revenue to support over US$20,000 in interest-free loans and are optimistic about our growth in the coming year.