Indigenous and Community-Based Tourism in Bolivia

  • Andrew Thompson
  • 5 August 2013

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.

Ancient ruins of an Inca temple, Sun Island (Lake Titicaca), Bolivia

Ancient ruins of an Inca temple on the Sun Island (Lake Titicaca) of Bolivia are part of the guided excursion organised by members of the Challa community. Photo courtesy of Sumak Travel

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?

Sun Island of Lake Titicaca, Bolivia

The Challa community lives and leads visits on the Sun Island of Lake Titicaca, cradle of Inca civilisation in Bolivia. Photo courtesy of Sumak Travel

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.

Bolivia's Uyuni Salt Flat (Salar de Uyuni)

The majestic beauty of Bolivia's Uyuni Salt Flat (Salar de Uyuni). Photo courtesy of Sumak Travel

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.

London-based Sumak Travel has formed a partnership with Tusoco built initially around the Essential Bolivia tour, a good way to get to know this incredible country.

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Andrew Thompson

Andrew Thompson is a freelance writer, blogger and management coach; he works for Sumak Travel. Brought up in Latin America, he has worked for BBC World Service and been a foreign correspondent in Mexico City (The Guardian), Buenos Aires (The Times), Rio de Janeiro (BBC) and Rome (Inter Press Service). As editor of a team that produced a radio documentary on social reform in Latin America, Andrew won the 1994 King of Spain Journalism Prize.
Andrew Thompson
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Bolivia, ecotours, indigenous culture, local knowledge, responsible travel news, South America, whl.travel,

6 Responses to “Indigenous and Community-Based Tourism in Bolivia”

  1. I spend about 5 weeks in Bolivia and had a great time. It’s hard to believe but I realy enjoyed every site I visited there, especially the Inca ruins that fasicnated me.

  2. andy says:

    I have visited Bolivia two time but never get chance to get out to the hotel due to some business obligations but after reading your post i am now committed to visit complete Bolivia on my next trip.

  3. […] Set in an Andean mountain valley, the city of Cochabamba, Bolivia, is headquarters of a unique organisation known as the Bolivian Network of Community and Solidarity Based Tourism (the Spanish acronym is Tusoco).  […]

  4. Community tourism is the best method to share the fruits of tourism with locals. Its success should be propagated in Bolivia and emulated in other countries.

  5. sarah jacob says:

    Lot heard about bolivia but never get chance to be there …after reading your post surely i will make a plan to go there.

  6. Jaramy says:

    Bolivia is a stunning country, I hope it won’t get destroyed by mass-tourism like some other places. Especially Uyuni Salt Flat should be kept safe from crowds of people…

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