Issue - October 2008

October 2008

What is ecotourism? Is this kind of tourism in Bolivia? Why? Who gets involved in ecotourism? How important is it to be responsible with nature and small communities? more...

October 2008

Tusoco: solidarity in community tourism

Discover Bolivia´s unexplored side through a network of community initiatives

Catriona Knox

Squeezed between a mechanics workshop and a busy street corner in the centre of Cochabamba, the office of TUSOCO is easily overlooked. But this small, unobtrusive building and its four dedicated staff represent one of Bolivia´s most important community tourism groups.

TUSOCO is a not-for-profit organisation which brings together 18 existing community tourism initiatives within Bolivia. Its mission is to strengthen, support, and promote the activities of its members through a unified network. TUSOCO is focused on the community-based aspect of ecotourism: “Our principal focus is to help local people, although we also try to take the environment into account,” says Clemente Pivin, one of the office’s staff. TUSOCO’s network helps tourists discover the hidden and authentic Bolivia which lies beyond a conventional holiday. By aiding development of local communities, travelers are guaranteed a rich experience.

TUSOCO provides a solution to the chief problem of ecotourism: lack of accreditation standards. “Many companies sell their product as community tourism, but in reality don’t give anything to local people,” says Sandro Saravia, national coordinator. “We serve as a means of certification within Bolivia, so that tourists can be sure they are paying for a service which genuinely benefits the community.”

However, TUSOCO does not require any concrete standards for membership. Each organisation operates independently, so it is up to them exactly where profits are channeled. “To be a member of TUSOCO, it’s obligatory that the organisation gives something back to its community, not just to one or two families, but to a significant number of local people,” says Pivin.

However, Saravia points out that it is not ideal to involve entire communities directly in the tourism industry either. “Tourism should complement, not overtake, a community’s traditional economic activities,” he argues. “If the entire population relies on tourism for income, cultures and customs are overtaken by western alternatives, and if the industry should collapse, a whole community is thrown into poverty.”

Members must pay a small fee in order to be included in TUSOCO’s network, but in return they receive support and publicity. Members can improve their services though participation in the workshops and courses which TUSOCO offer. The network provides a crucial means for knowledge exchange, where established groups can offer advice and support to those with less experience. TUSOCO also plays a crucial role in publicity, attracting tourists to these unique community-based enterprises.

The majority of TUSOCO’s community tourism services involve direct contact between tourists and rural communities. Critics argue that the culture clashes of these interactions can result in negative impacts on traditional cultures. The Cocha-Banner asked TUSOCO to comment on these critiques: “We havn’t had any real problems, but of course in communities which welcome tourists everyday there is a large impact on the local culture,” comments Pivin. “I think direct involvement is a good thing, but especially for young people, continued contact with tourists can result in westernisation. The important thing is to prepare people for these exchanges.” Pivin emphasises that tourists should ensure they respect cultural differences to keep these disturbances to a minimum.

Unfortunately, development of ecotourism in Bolivia is a difficult task. TUSOCO was established with the help of CIOEC Bolivia, but required a number of European sponsors because national support in this area is seriously lacking. “Laws and regulations are obstacles for development”, say the frustrated staff, “and there is still no national recognition of the community tourism label.” However, the government is beginning to realise the benefits this industry can bring to Bolivia. In 2001, representatives from Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru met to create the “Declaración de Otavo”, an initiative to support sustainable tourism. Other such initiatives include “Red Tours”, an association which unites ecotourism operators from across Latin America.

Demand for responsible tourism is growing across the world Pivin declares: “Community tourism is expanding each year by 15%, in comparison with 4% for traditional tourism.” An increasing number of travelers are searching for holidays off the beaten track which leave positive footprints behind, and this is the market for which TUSOCO provides.

The Chalalán Eco-lodge

These Eco-tourism projects are members of Tusoco and they both are near to the capital of La Paz; Chalalán is more focused on the protection of the environment while Mapajo mainly works to help the indigenous communities. ...

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