2013 International Year of Quinoa event at Dickinson College (Carlisle, PA)

The GT’s own Dr. Maria Bruno is organizing a fantastic event about quinoa at Dickinson College tomorrow.  I’m looking forward to learning more about quinoa agriculture from Andrew Ofstehage and Pablo Laguna, and I’ll also be speaking about why Quinua is “good to think.”  Here’s the official flyer!

Dickinson Quinoa Event_2013

McDonald’s vs Quinua: Meta-commodities and strategic alliances

Anthropological Allsorts

Bolivia has become a popular place to mention while critiquing the West/United States.  Don’t like U.S. politics? Consider Bolivian popular protests. Don’t like exploitative capitalism? Bolivia is rejecting neoliberalism. Don’t like U.S. fast food?  Food writer Steve Holt, after watching Fernando Martinez’s 2011 documentary “¿Por qué se quebró McDonalds?“, asks us to consider Bolivia.  After all, they don’t have McDonald’s.

Let me be clear: I haven’t eaten regularly at McDonald’s since my short stint working in one as a teen (and even then, I often packed a lunch). I also don’t eat at Burger King, Wendy’s, Carl’s Jr., In and Out, or other burger fast food establishments unless it’s one of the rare occasions when  a) I’m on a road trip with people who really, really want to eat at such a place,  or b) I’m trapped in an airport and need to eat quickly.  Once…

View original post 1,278 more words

Are Bolivians unfriendly to tourists?! Part 4

I promised a followup if I found additional information about the CNN media coverage, based on WEF studies, claiming that Bolivia was the nation most unfriendly to tourists (see those posts here: part 1, part 2, and part 3).  And here it is – confirmation that this study does not actually measure anything about how tourists interact with Bolivians.

One institution involved in conducting the WEF Executive Opinion Survey for Bolivia was the Latin American business school INCAE, where I worked briefly after college (1995-1997).  One of the people involved in that study was my former colleague, Lawrence Pratt, who is Director of INCAE’s Latin American Center for Competitiveness and Sustainable Development and has written extensively on tourism in Latin America.  So I emailed him to ask his opinion.

It became clear in our email conversation that the data collected by the Executive Opinion Survey does not evaluate the experiences of tourists per se (something I already suspected, as discussed in previous posts, although it’s great to have that confirmed).  What the study actually evaluates are the perceptions of local businesspeople about the overall business climate.  This does explain why so many nations on the “friendly to tourists” list are also first world nations — that is part of what the data is actually measuring.  (Unfortunately, the survey questions themselves are proprietary, so I have not seen them and cannot comment on them. It would be interesting to know whether they ask about tourism specifically.)

This data eventually, through what appears to be a game of academic telephone, led to the conclusion that Bolivians were unfriendly to tourists as publicized by CNN.  This data nevertheless does shed light on how tourism, and might potentially, function in Bolivia.  Lawrence has given permission for me to publish this comment from him:

“The WEF Executive Opinion Survey was designed to provide input into the Global Competitiveness Rankings.  That survey is a consistent and reasonable assessment of business leaders´ perceptions of their countries´ business climate as a whole. However,  I do not believe that survey is deep enough or precise enough to infer fine grain detail of particular industries.  Having studied tourism competitiveness and its  role in development for nearly 20 years, I believe there are simply too many other factors that need to be considered, beyond simply “business climate” or “investment attraction” which are the GCR´s focus.  Having a good business climate certainly can help tourism-linked development, but it is not a sufficient condition.  There is no real evidence that above certain basic competitive conditions in a country, higher rankings in investment attraction or business climate are even that related to tourism.   There are many countries with relatively low GCR rankings that have successful tourism industries that create great development opportunities for their citizens . And there are countries with relatively high GCR rankings that do not have interesting tourism sectors.   Higher GCR rankings certainly indicate better conditions for tourism investment on a massive scale.  However the benefits of tourism for development are more tied to meso and micro linkages, and based more on visitor experience – a country´s assets and how they are presented and shared with tourists, given certain conditions of safety and comfort. Further, the reason tourism is promoted by nearly every developing country in the world is precisely because you do not need to have a great business climate to have a successful tourism sector, and because it is one the most cost-effective businesses in terms of investment per job created.

Any developing country developing its tourism sector has to make a very conscious decision that reduces to a simple marketing and investment decision — mass tourism (high volume, low margin, high infrastructure needs) or specialized tourism (lower volume, high margin, reduced infrastructure needs).  If the country chooses the former, then business climate and investment attraction plays a more significant role. If the country chooses the latter, business climate and investment attraction are much less critical factors, particularly compared to visitor experience (nature, culture, social interaction).”

I agree with Lawrence on many of these points.  Bolivia is positioning itself as a destination in “specialized tourism” focused on ecological and cultural tourism, and is not attempting to become a “mass tourism” destination.  That means that the “business climate” measured in the WEF study is less correlated with potential tourism success.  The WEF data, contrary to CNN’s report, actually shows that Bolivia should be promoting tourism — and it is.

At local levels things can look uneven, however.  Tourism is often treated as a cure-all panacea for developing regions, although as Lawrence points out, there is potential for real success. My own experiences in Bolivia have left me ambivalent about the role tourism plays there.  Poor Bolivians in the rural altiplano (where I was) often have high hopes that tourism can bring in money and jobs.  But there are also many communities in Bolivia that were unable to participate in the tourism industry as fully as they wished, even as they were told that tourism will allow them to benefit from the presence of relatively rich foreigners. I once watched one of these communities (in 2004) receive a delegation of well-meaning outsiders who wished to teach them to cook for tourists, as if this would magically cause foreigners to appear. It was implied that if there were French Fries, they will come.

Who would want to eat French fries when one could eat quinua soup or llama charque?!  When I heard about this, my advice to the people of the community I spoke to was this: You know who is a good cook in your community, right? Have them cook what you eat for tourists.  It seems that Bolivian food is now becoming the norm in rural tourism, which is a relief.  And quinua is being honored this year by the U.N. and heavily promoted by the Bolivian government.

All this falls into the trap of the original CNN article: assuming that how locals treat tourists on an individual level (friendliness, cooking, etc) is a major factor in determining tourist flows.  Much of touristic experience is prestructured by industries that determine transportation prices, visa regulations, global reputation of attractions (via UNESCO World Heritage and other honors), and other factors.  Tourist decisions about where to travel involve these global linkages long before they consider whether people in the location are perceived as “friendly.”  And once in the nation, linkages continue to determine where tourist money actually goes.  Local transportation infrastructure, marketing of local attractions, and touristic services such as restaurants and hotels are all part of convincing tourists to spend money in particular places (rather than just taking photographs as they drive by).

The mere physical presence of tourists in a community is not the same thing as development. Likewise, confusing the business community’s perception of the business climate, with the interactions between foreigners and the people working with them “on the ground,” fails to recognize the realities of both these sets of interactions. The WEF data is useful, but not for the purpose to which it was put.

Seeking people in their “natural environments”

Obviously I’m on a roll criticizing the press this month (expect an update on the CNN controversy soon).  Take this photo contest at Today Travel (part of MSNBC).  They requested photos from readers (presumably from the U.S.) taken abroad (presumably while they were tourists).  Then they titled it “Going Native” — even though the American photographers appear in none of the photos, and these are certainly not photos showing the integration of the photographers into local culture.

“Going Native” was a phrase which — long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away — representing something anthropologists (along with missionaries, colonial officers, and other migratory Europeans in positions of relative power) were supposed to avoid.  Getting too close to your informants — those people one interviews, lives with, and tries to understand — was said to interfere with the scientific objectivity required to draw kinship diagrams.  “Going native” meant one liked the food in the field so well that one neglected to apply for a tenure-track position in Springfield.  Or something.

“Going native” is no longer a serious concern of anthropologists (if, in fact, it ever really was).  Most anthropologists have a very different idea about objectivity — if they think that a useful analytic concept at all (personally, I don’t).  In a context where one can cook recipes learned in the field at home and become Facebook friends with informants, the field is always with you.  And so is home. While I am in the field here in Spain, for example, I can follow the news in the U.S., from major events to department issues.  The lines between home and field are still there, but technology can make them more porous.

I don’t think any of this was really on the minds of the folks at Today Travel, though.  In regards to this set of photos for “Going Native,” the editors gush:

You captured fascinating people around the world and showcased them in their natural environment. Such beautiful portraits!

This sounds like butterfly collecting. I spend a lot of time in Introduction to Anthropology arguing that humans don’t have natural environments, at least not in the western sense of nature vs. culture.  All people are just as cultural as all other people, because that is what it means to be human.  There are no environments that are more natural for (certain) people to be in, as implied here.

But let’s look at what some of these photos actually capture. The current front-runner in the online voting, and the lowest ranked, have a great deal in common when one looks closer.  (And yes, you can still vote if you wish if you want to mess with that ranking.)

Let’s start with this striking photo of an Ecuadorian ambulante in Quito.  An ambulante is a person who sells goods while walking around.  Based on my knowledge of La Paz markets (I have never been to Quito), these individuals are usually among the poorest of market vendors. They generally lack a permanent place (stall, kiosk, or an established part of a sidewalk) to sell, their inventory is usually limited, and the goods they sell are inexpensive and require little capital investment.  In this photo, the woman holds bags of oranges for sale.  She looks straight at the camera slightly suspiciously; she appears caught off guard. The camera is clearly inside a vehicle (note the out-of-focus dashboard on the lower left).  This photo is in last place in the online competition.

The front-runner is this dynamic photo of a Maasai dance performed by people in “traditional” clothes in a “natural” (i.e., no visible human-made structures) environment.  I suspect this is a photo of a performance for tourists, of the kind discussed by Edward Bruner in a chapter of his book Culture on Tour. As he discusses, what the tourists see (a Maasai dance) is a separate question from what the performers experience (in terms of pay equity, management, intended audience, message, etc).  Looking at this photo, we don’t know what these dancers were paid, what their expectations for the future are, or whether they would encourage their children to pursue employment dancing for tourists. We have no idea what the photographer is doing either — standing? sitting? sipping a gin and tonic?

Despite the very different popular evaluations of these two photos, both imply relationships of structural inequality.  One photographer has the resources to sit in the car while the photographed woman sells oranges.  The other photographer watchers the dancers who perform and are photographed for money.  Obviously these inequalities here are not natural; they are the products of human interactions and histories.

The photo that is “successful” in terms of popular internet acclaim is the one that best hides that actual human interactions taking place and creates an illusion of a “natural environment.”  The Ecuadorian ambulante is clearly engaging with the photographer, making her annoyance clear; his position as merely driving by is evident.  The winning photograph, in contrast, removes all evidence of the photographer (or any audience at all), presenting these dancers as acting in a social void.  They are in a line, facing in the same direction, but not looking directly at the camera — and dance for no obvious reason at all. There is nothing “natural” about this. What’s interesting is that it could be interpreted to appear that way.

Are Bolivians “unfriendly” to tourists?! Part 3: Tourists respond

I figured I wouldn’t be the only one to take up CNN’s ridiculous claim that Bolivians are unfriendly to tourists.  (See my recent analysis of the relevant study here and here.)  Regardless, this claim is now being circulated in publications such as NBCThe Australian, The Telegraph [Sydney], The Telegraph [London], MSN, and is also being quoted in many tourist online discussion boards and other travel-related blogs.  And it is currently listed as “most popular” on CNN’s webpage.  This screen shot was taken on March 15, 2013:


Clearly the idea that some nation should to be recognized as the “unfriendliest” is one that resonates with many.  Sigh.

In response, I choose to focus on the positive.  Here’s a round-up of other web responses from “tourists” in Bolivia.  (I’ll update as new pieces come out.)

Elaine Radford, who sounds as angry about this as I am, writes:  “I’m sorry, folks, but that’s just plain whackadoo…. Everywhere I went, I was greeted with kindness and respect, and the local people seemed to go the extra mile to make sure I enjoyed their beautiful country.”

Last updated March 16, 2013.