COMMUNITY TOURISM: After Crisis comes Opportunity

Yesika Calderón

Guatemala ended 2019 with a 6% increase in tourism compared with 2018, welcoming a total of 2,559,599 international tourists. Those of us who work in the sector saw 2020 as a very promising year for reservations, positioning in international travel fairs, rising interest in Guatemalan culture and gastronomy and visiting the jungles of the Petén region to learn about history through archaeological sites, desires to enjoy our majestic mountains and active volcanos, interest in language and cultural immersion, and above all desires to experience community tourism.

Nevertheless, beginning in January and February 2020, fear of travel began to spread quickly around the world. As for Guatemala, international tourists (particularly Europeans) were asking about the situation in our country. Their questions were about if there were cases of Covid-19 in Guatemala, what the health and safety situation was, and—perhaps the most feared question of all—what would happen if they decided to cancel their trip.

It is difficult to believe that a virus, which began to spread on the other side of the world, would have such a strong influence in the decision to travel to Guatemala, as at the time we did not have a single case of infection. However, cancelations, changes, and reimbursement requests were coming in, representing the anxiety many people were feeling. The hope was that in a few months everything would be back to normal, but the big hit for the tourist industry came on March 12, when the government decided to close the borders for an indefinite period of time, something that had never happened before in Guatemala.

It was then that tour operators, hotels, restaurants, artisans, nature reserves, tourist sites, and other service providers in the industry began to ask themselves what to do. How were we to tell our coworkers that we would be unable to continue paying their salaries if things did not change? We realized that the crisis would not be just a health crisis, but an economic crisis with humanitarian consequences as well. The families of guides, waiters, pilots, etc. depended on their weekly income to survive, but their employment would be suspended.

The level of unemployment in the tourist industry has risen to a critical point. It is estimated that in Guatemala, 177,000 direct employees in the tourist industry have stopped working. A few have been temporarily laid off, and thus have qualified for government benefits in the form of a stipend. However, most employees of small- and medium-sized businesses, as well as those who are self-employed (like tour guides, Spanish teachers, and tour pilots) are in limbo without benefits, seeking immediate alternatives to provide for their families.

While the government and banking system require various institutional formalities in order to provide support or credit to the tourism industry, small- and medium-sized businesses are excluded from this type of aid as many of them lack a business plan or other required documents that big businesses file. Once again, small economic sectors, and in this case those who work in community tourism, have been ignored.

However, something interesting is taking place due to the way in which community tourism projects operate: they have figured out how to survive the crisis. Unlike conventional tourism firms, which work individually and focus on a single activity, community tourism works collectively: everyone—whether they have a family side business in agriculture, work in foodservice, or are weavers—supports the project and plays a role, generating an economic movement within the community. In this way, while tourism recuperates, people are able to earn an income through these activities and others based on the concept of association and mutual support for the good of all.

On the other hand, not all workers in the small-scale tourism sector have had the same luck, especially independent tour guides, as starting a new business alone or adapting to using technology as a new way to promote one’s services has not been easy. For the moment, the future of tourism is uncertain, and until a definitive solution to the virus is found, making the jump to open a new venture without thinking about how to do it responsibly with strict safety measures would cause another wave of infections.

It is forecasted that in Guatemala, internal tourism will be the first to bounce back, as due to the restrictions and risks involved in traveling to another country, Guatemalans traveling within Guatemala will be the first to drive this sector. However, it is extremely important to remember that there will still be a latent economic crisis, and because of this, unless the government creates a concrete plan to reactivate national tourism, the industry will have a difficult time growing rapidly and being successful. Like in many other areas, government actions are unclear, and because of this there is no light at the end of the tunnel.

Covid-19 has made it clear how important it is to take care of the environment and has demonstrated that environmental change has caused and will continue to cause disasters like the one we are living through today. We are the ones who have the biggest impact on the environment, and yet we are vulnerable in its face. Thence arrives the general idea of a more conscious tourism, wherein the tourist adapts to the destination and the destination offers its best to meet those expectations. For this reason, the national tourist sector is preparing for a new way of travel and to make tourism more sustainable, respectful, and above all, be more in contact with nature.

It is known that ecotourism and rural tourism will be the next travel trend, which means that each provider of tourist services should prepare themselves to follow all the protocols that will be indispensable to guarantee the safety of visitors and hosts (in this case, individual community tourism project operators). This is an opportunity to take advantage of the qualities of this type of tourism: open-air spaces and activities, personalized services, social distancing, private lodging, and healthy food, among others, which will help to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

Guatemala has an important competitive advantage. More than 60% of our territory is rural, which is ideal for the promotion of this type of tourism. In these times, it is indispensable that communities be able to organize themselves and achieve a level of participation, training, and revitalization of the principle actors in this area, which are general and community guides, accommodation hosts, as well as restaurateurs and transportation workers, with the goal of offering a responsible form of tourism with adequate safety measures for the benefit of tourists—both national and foreign.

Yessika Calderón – Travel Agent

Travel & Health Guatemala