In Bolivia, a country of amazing landscapes, the city of Cochabamba sits in an Andean mountain valley. Its name comes from two Quechua Indian words, meaning ‘lake’ and ‘open plain,’ and it is fittingly steeped in Bolivia’s long multi-ethnic and revolutionary history. For example, two years ago, Cochabamba hosted the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth; and just ending last week was the Antimperialist Summit, addressed on August 2 by President Evo Morales, himself an Aymara Indian.
There is, however, another important reason to talk about Cochabamba: community-based tourism in Bolivia. The city is the headquarters of a unique organisation known as the Bolivian Network of Community and Solidarity Based Tourism (the Spanish acronym is Tusoco). A product of grassroots peasant and indigenous community organisations, Tusoco is a thriving organisation with a new approach to sustainable and responsible tourism.
Something Better Comes to Life
Some 10 years ago, independently of each other, a number of farming and indigenous communities began experimenting with homestay tourism. They wanted to supplement their traditional livelihoods, like farming, with some relatively small-scale tourism revenue and they wanted to do it on terms that would be acceptable to the communities.
The approach was cooperative and solidarity-based. The work and the benefits would be shared within the community, and tourism would be built around the fabric of their cultures, lifestyles, environmental practices and values, not imposed upon from the outside. In 2005, Tusoco came into being as a network; in 2009 it set up its own tour operator in the capital city of La Paz. It now has 26 member communities.
Bolivia can offer truly exceptional attractions, but until Tusoco came along, the country had been locked in to a conventional tourism model based on package tours and a share of bad practices, such as arbitrary and opaque pricing. So why is Tusoco is better?
Travel with the People
First, guides come from the local communities. A visit to Lake Titicaca, the ancestral home of Inca and pre-Inca cultures that go back thousands of years, is different when your guide is a direct descendant of the ancient culture. The same applies across the whole country.
With Tusoco, apart from some hotel stays, you spend most of the time living with the communities, for example in the Challa community guest houses on the sacred Sun Island (Lake Tititcaca), or in ecolodges run by indigenous people in Madidi National Park, one of the world’s largest protected wildlife areas.
When surrounded by a community, you can have direct, one-to-one dialogues with the locals. In Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat, with its surreal slow-growing cacti and pink flamingos, Aymara Indians are happy to explain their way of life to interested foreigners and to show how sustainable tourism is working for them.
In a country where locals are often suspicious of foreigners – with good reason, since back in the 19th century Britain supported a war against Bolivia partly to get access to salt deposits – the community-tourism model allows for a completely different type of conversation.
Fair, Participatory and Democratic
Second, trips are conducted on a fair-trade basis, with all parties committed to transparent pricing. The traveller always knows how much of the money paid is going to the local communities. There is no question of land being bought for mega-hotel developments; that would conflict with the aim of creating a sustainable, environmentally friendly businesses. Participants describe the interaction as a fair-trade exchange among equal parties based on mutual respect.
Third, the growth of this kind of responsible tourism empowers local communities, affirming the value of their cultures and ways of life, strengthening their ability to defend ancestral lands and raising standards of living. The process is participatory and democratic.
Tusoco’s model can be easily replicated in other countries and continents. The challenge now is to let discerning travellers know about this new and exciting option, raising its visibility and marketing it more widely.