Tourism in Bolivia is thriving. Even most recently, amid a global tourism slump, it has proved surprisingly resilient. The industry, which hardly existed here a decade ago, now ranks as the country’s third largest source of foreign exchange behind oil and gas extraction and soy farming.
The growth has been largely unregulated, and local tourism businesses often have engaged in ruthless price wars. Yet at the same time, some projects have emerged as models of how Bolivian tourism could become more sustainable, both socially and environmentally.
With money available for hundreds of new sustainable-tourism projects, there is a chance such models could be replicated nationwide. In recent years, tourism around key attractions has transformed local economies.
“In the 80’s there wasn’t a single tour agency in Rurrenabaque,” says Alcides López, manager of Bala tours, one of 20 agencies now running trips from this town into Bolivia’s best-known protected area, Madidi National Park. “Everybody lived through logging or hunting, but now tourism is our main source of income.”
López laments the cutthroat price competition that has slashed profit margins and threatened environmental, social and quality-of-service goals. But one company in town is attempting to go against the grain.
An eco-lodge model
The Chalalan Ecolodge, on the River Tuich five hours by boat from Rurrenabaque, attracts visitors from all over the world who pay up to four times the rate of other agencies to experience high-quality ecotourism. The lodge was set up in 1998 with the participation of the U.S.-based non-governmental group Conservation International using financing from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). Now it is entirely managed and run by the indigenous community of San José de Chupiamonas, which has a population of about 600.
A decade ago San José was dying. Over half the population had left the isolated village. But the town’s population has begun growing again thanks largely to jobs and opportunities created by the lodge, which has generated over US$400,000 in its first three years of operation. Residents who had left are returning, and young people are showing greater interest in acquiring new knowledge and skills. Says San José-born Guido Mamani, Chalalan’s manager: “[The lodge] has created high expectations among our youth. Now, more than 50 of them are studying outside the community.”
Bolivian officials believe that if funding is made available for the development and marketing of eco-lodges, Chalalan’s success can be replicated and ecotourism could become enormously important to the Bolivian economy.
The government has secured US$6 million in IDB sustainable-development financing to help carry out projects that include private sector-community partnerships. Another US$4 million available through a World Bank program for indigenous development can be used to finance community-led tourism projects.
Officials also are working to improve legal controls. To ensure efficient impact-monitoring and management, for instance, the National Protected Areas Service (Sernap) is preparing regulations for tourism projects in protected areas. Under one of the proposed regulations, companies offering jungle tours in Madidi will be assigned a fixed area of the park in which to operate. Sernap will then monitor each company separately, with the power to revoke operating licenses if conservation requirements are not met.
Two hurdles: red tape, partnering
Juan Rení Alcoba, head of Sernap’s tourism division, welcomes the new ecotourism investment and regulations. But he warns there are problems that, if not addressed, could hinder progress. A major one, he says, is that registering a company in Bolivia is too complex for rural communities. He believes the government should create an easier process for community-based companies. Another problem he cites is uncertainty about how partnerships between the private sector and communities ought to function.
Jazmin Caballero, a tourism consultant who manages a La Paz travel company, argues that few investors know how to work with small communities. If Chalalan is to serve as a guide, she says, strong community involvement must be achieved.
That view is shared by Jacqueline Peña of the U.S. non-governmental group Care International. Peña is coordinating a tourism project that retraces the route of Ché Guevara’s ill-fated guerrilla operations in Bolivia. She acknowledges private-sector involvement can be crucial not only in supplying capital, but also in providing business expertise, helping communities understand what tourists want and marketing. But she believes that for the “Route of Ché” project to succeed, members of local Guaraní communities must become managers.
One local she’s working with is Daniel Zapata, who says he is encouraged by San José’s experience. “I have seen from Chalalan that though it takes time to build, indigenous people can manage a project,” he says.
- Andrew Enever