Recent travel trends have emphasized an authentic experience where travelers are immersed in local customs and culture. For many countries in the Global South, cultural tourism presents new economic opportunity. Central American countries see thousands of tourists each year who are drawn to the colorful, vibrant heritage of the Maya people. Since the 1996 Peace Accords ended the country’s 36 year civil war, tourism has become an increasingly important sector of the Guatemalan economy.
In 2013, over 1.3 millions tourists visited Guatemala and tourism the country’s second highest source of foreign exchange, after coffee exportation. Many organizations, including the UN, have recognized that tourism is a valuable tool for social, economic and environmental development. However for some, it is unclear whether these gains benefit indigenous communities or profit from their exploitation. Some research has indicated that while tourism can lead to a renewed sense of cultural pride among Maya people, it can also be detrimental if it is orchestrated by and for foreign tourists who then see cultural practices in a performative way as is the case with traditional weaving practices.
We have found that the most effective way of promoting and preserving ethnic, cultural and national identity is for tourists and local communities to work together, with travel companies that organize immersive trips that work closely with a local community group. By encouraging tourist to explore the entire process and history of traditional weaving techniques, travelers can gain an appreciation for the art that extends beyond material and aesthetic value. In many weaving cooperatives, women express gratitude for the ability to meet foreigners and the exposure that these relationships provide. By working with NGOs and tourism companies, many locals have been exposed to using the internet, speaking English and most importantly, managing money through a bank or cooperative. Ethically designed tourism presents an opportunity for indigenous communities to participate in the modern world while promoting and preserving their traditional identities.
Travel and tourism result in social, cultural and environmental impacts and it is up to the traveler to take responsibility for themselves and their activities in ensuring that these impacts are positive in nature. While there are no formal regulations or policies for responsible tourism, many tour companies exists that emphasis a mutually beneficial relationship between tourists and locals in order to ensure sustainable tourism practices. In 1999 the UN General Assembly and The UN World Tourism Organization adopted a resolution to create a Global Code of Ethics for Tourism, which outlines 10 Articles that aim to maximize tourism benefits for travelers and locals while preventing any possible negative impacts. The 10 principles are as follows:
Article 1: Tourism's contribution to mutual understanding and respect between peoples and societies
Article 2: Tourism as a vehicle for individual and collective fulfillment
Article 3: Tourism, a factor of sustainable development
Article 4: Tourism, a user of the cultural heritage of mankind and contributor to its enhancement
Article 5: Tourism, a beneficial activity for host countries and communities
Article 6: Obligations of stakeholders in tourism development
Article 7: Right to tourism
Article 8: Liberty of tourist movements
Article 9: Rights of the workers and entrepreneurs in the tourism industry
Article 10: Implementation of the principles of the Global Code of Ethics for Tourism
As the tourism industry continues to grow in Guatemala, NGOs and tour companies offering “authentic” experiences should take care to ensure that the identity and practices that define Maya culture are respected, rather than exploited, by facilitating a mutually beneficial relationship between tourist and locals that is based on the reality of current Maya life and not a vacation-inspired atmosphere created for the purposes of tourism.
Argueta, Christina M. Mending Guatemala’s Tourism Industry Through Private Regulation. NYU School of Law, Note, 2014. [Access available at http://www.nyulawreview.org/sites/default/files/pdf/NYULawReview-89-4-1381-Argueta.pdf]
Willet, Benjamin Michael. Ethnic tourism and indigenous activism; power and social change in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. University of Iowa, Thesis, 2007. [Access available at http://ir.uiowa.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1334&context=etd]
United Nations and UN World Trade Organization, Global Code for Ethics in Tourism, 1999.