July 2011

Cochabamba: Tourist Destination?

As far as South American cities go, Cochabamba has so far remained relatively untouched by tourism. But with the efforts of the Tourist Information Office and local businesses, could that be about to change?

By Jessica Eastwell
Projects Abroad Volunteer
Hexham - England

Photo: Gerben de Rooij.
The Cochabamba Tourist Office.

Cochabamba is not normally on most tourists’ itineraries. The travellers who make it to Cochabamba tend to be the ones who are more determined to get off the beaten track (and away from other tourists). Despite this, the Tourist Information Office is determined to get more visitors (and their money) into the area. “Cochabamba is the gastronomic capital of Bolivia,” explains Faviola, a representative of the Tourist Information office. “It’s well known on a national level because we eat really well here, with lots of variety. Over the past few years, we’ve been working on the image of the city that we want to project.”

No one can accuse the Tourist Information Office of not making an effort. The Office’s Virtual Tourism Centre has eight computers with internet connections, all of which are equipped with specialist tourist software. A leaflet for the Centre claims: “[the software] contains maps, digitalised information, photo and video galleries, and locations for all tourist attractions, not just in Cochabamba, but in Bolivia.” The software, which is the first of its kind in Bolivia, can help tourists find anything from cafes to money changing facilities.

The Tourist information Office isn’t just active in the virtual world. As Faviola tells me, they are busy with a variety of projects, such as the one in the Cancha: “What we aim to do is to have a tourist information point with an enormous map, so that you don’t get lost. We also want to train local children to act as guides.” Another big part of what the Tourist Office does is research, attempting to bridge the gap between various isolated tourist attractions. “Right now, we’re setting up a consultancy in each district of Cochabamba. We want to identify all the tourist attractions in each community, so that each district can have its own identity, and then we can create small museums, interpretation centres, and a tourist area where there can be cafes and restaurants, something a bit more organised.”

Despite this, Bolivia remains one of the least visited countries in South America, meaning that it misses out on an important source of income. There are a number of reasons for this: a lack of infrastructure, political instability, and restrictive visa regulations for visitors from the USA. “The Ministry of Tourism has very few resources,” Faviola points out. “Part of it is that we don’t do many things that are coordinated with other institutions. We ought to work hand in hand with local government, and other organisations that work in tourism. But that doesn’t quite work.” She also observes that while languages are one of the Office’s weak points, and one which they are working to improve, at the very least, their staff are expected to be able to speak English. They also look for those that can speak Quechua, a sign that Bolivian tourists are just as important a source of revenue as foreigners.

Photo: Gerben de Rooij.
The Virtual Tourist Information Centre.

The Tourist Information Office also has links with a variety of travel companies, in order to help tourists attempting to plan their trips. “We’ve met with them on various occasions, and we are always working with them. Next month, we are going to have a meeting to look at the Brazilians in Cochabamba. There are five hundred in the University, and they want to know about the tourist attractions in Cochabamba, and also in the rest of the country.” Given the large amount of students and gap year travellers, I wanted to know if there were any travel agencies that specialised in working with young people. “Takuaral works with a lot of young people, with school groups. But really, all the companies work with all types of customers, because there just aren’t enough for them to be able to choose who they work with.”

But what should everyone be doing to ensure that Cochabamba can be enjoyed by future visitors? Of course, the responsibility has to be shared between tourism companies and the tourists themselves. Aside from commonsense actions to protect yourself and the environment, which are universal whether you’re at home or abroad, Faviola has the following advice for tourists: “When you go to a country, you have to respect their norms and culture. You shouldn’t behave excessively, because this is what causes misunderstandings, and stops you from having a good trip.”Tour operators also have a responsibility to explain correct conduct to tourists, particularly in areas like National Parks, and cultural differences that may not necessarily be obvious to Western visitors. Faviola also emphasises that “they should be serious in their proposals and not lie, by not offering services which they won’t be able to provide. They must be responsible with regard to the environment as well.”

So, is Cochabamba set to become an internationally known tourist hotspot? That’s not certain, but at the moment, the city has a particular charm for travellers who want to get off the beaten track. As one potential visitor using the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree travel forum observes: “that means it’s not crawling with people like myself: tourists. Just my kind of place.”

remains one of the least visited countries in South America, meaning that it misses out on an important source of income.

“You shouldn’t behave excessively, because this is what causes misunderstandings, and stops you from having a good trip.”

“The Ministry of Tourism has very few resources”

El Cristo de las Lagrimas:
betw een science and spirituality.

Every day dozens of people visit the Capilla Cristo de las Lágrimas, not far from its famous landmark twin. Some kneel down in prayer; others just drop in on their way and cross themselves in front of the sculpture. The walls around the altar are covered with small plaques, donated to the chapel by grateful believers to thank Christ. Most of the plaques come from Cochabamba and surroundings, but some have come from as far as Santiago de Chile.

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