How “unfriendly” is Bolivia to tourists? Musings on the misleading uses of survey data

CNN reported that Bolivia has been found to be the world’s most unfriendly nation to tourists:

Among the extensive analyses, one of the most interesting rankings was how welcome tourists are in each country, under the category “Attitude of population toward foreign visitors.”

And the world’s most unfriendly country, according to the data?

Bolivia took the dubious honor, scoring a 4.1 out of seven on a scale of “very unwelcome” (0) to “very welcome” (7).

Having lived in Bolivia for several years with people who interact directly with tourists, my first thought was: what?!  Bolivians are very welcoming and extremely friendly, and tourists I spoke to generally commented on how they felt comfortable and safe while traveling there.  I found CNN’s claim to supreme unfriendliness totally baffling.  So, being an academic, I started digging.

The report referenced by CNN is the World Economic Forum’s 2013 “Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report.”  Among the many factors influencing tourism competitiveness discussed in this report is “affinity for tourism.”  Here, Bolivia is ranked 139th out of 140 nations, with a score of 3.2 out of 7.  The report breaks down this number into four subsections, as follows:

12th pillar: Affinity for Travel & Tourism ……………….. 3.2 ….. 139
12.01 Tourism openness, % of GDP* ………………………. 2.8 …..105
12.02 Attitude of population toward foreign visitors … 4.1 ….140
12.03 Extension of business trips recommended ……… 3.6…..138
12.04 Degree of customer orientation …………………… 3.5 …..136

Element 12.02 is what has been termed “friendliness” by CNN.  But where do these numbers come from?

This data was taken from a different report by the WEF called the 2013 “Global Competitiveness Report,” which outlines the general methodology for the “Executive Opinion Survey” on which this information was based.  This survey has been conducted for 40 years and no doubt provides useful information, but we need to consider seriously what it actually measures.  (For those of you more versed in statistics than I, please do take a look at it; it goes into mathematical detail about how these numbers were produced.)

The “Executive Opinion Survey” was conducted with 72 Bolivian businesspeople through an online survey.  In other words, these numbers do not come from asking tourists whether they thought Bolivians were friendly towards them. It actually measures whether Bolivian businesspeople think other Bolivians are friendly to “foreign visitors,” a category which includes not only tourists but others kinds of travelers.  (They also asked these businesspeople whether they would recommend fellow business travelers coming to Bolivia to extend their stay for leisure, giving the data for section 12.03 above).

Translating this data — that Bolivian businesspeople think their compatriots are unfriendly to foreigners  — into the conclusion that tourists find Bolivians to be unfriendly, is dubious at best.  Just because the Bolivian government has nationalized foreign businesses does not mean that local people are hostile to leisure travelers.  Not all foreigners are the same.  They have different purposes, travel in different circles, have different expectations and hopes, and locals recognize these distinctions and respond to these groups differently.

In addition, there is the question of how internal politics in Bolivia might affect these results.  Given the national divisions between rural and urban, rich and poor, indigenous and mestizo, these numbers may tell us more about relationships between Bolivians rather than between Bolivians and tourists.  While in Bolivia in 2002-2004 I heard many times from urban non-indigenous people that rural indigenous peoples (like the ones I lived with) disliked tourists, or didn’t understand the value of tourism. These comments were usually due to the use of blockades as political tool, which was common at that time.  Some urban businesspeople involved in tourism felt that this hurt “everyone” because it affected tourism.

Certainly the blockades at that time did affect tourism, and rural indigenous people were aware of that. But these communities generally benefited economically very little from the presence of tourists (with the exception of a few towns), and blockading roads was the only way to gain the political attention they needed to solve real problems.  Blockades weren’t primarily about inconveniencing tourists; it was about the relationship between rural communities and the Bolivian government (at that time, under Pres. Sanchez de Lozada and then Pres. Mesa).

Allow me to share a memory from that time.  I did research in a rural town that housed a major tourist attraction.  The town decided that after four days without electricity in the entire region, and unsuccessful talks with the appropriate officials, that they would blockade the pan-American highway (this, for the record, quickly led to the electricity being turned back on).

Before starting the blockade, however, locals talked to all the tour guides working in the area that day so they could leave with their groups before the blockade started.  (These tour guides were based in La Paz and traveled with these groups to this rural site for just the day.)  While locals saw the blockade  as politically necessary, they considered the convenience of tourists in its timing.  I’m sure most of those tourists were not aware of this behind-the-scenes event, but would have been happy to know that even though locals could have forced them to stay and spend more (sorely-needed) money in their town, locals instead made sure that the tourists visiting them could return to their hotels in La Paz as they’d planned.

I will continue to investigate the methodology of this WEF study and report if I find anything more.

Update, June 28 2013:  This is part one of a four part series.  Read part two, part three, and part four.

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16 Responses

  1. Along with your clarification of who the respondents were on the “friendliness to tourists” measure, looking at the scale and score, “unfriendly” is not really unfriendly – 4.1 on a 7 pt scale. That’s more somewhat welcome/somewhat unwelcome. “Unfriendly”, or, “very unwelcome” on the measure, would be scores in the 1-3 range. An alternative interpretation is that Bolivian businesspeople are ambivalent about whether or not Bolivians are welcoming to tourists. Possible conclusion: asking businesspeople to evaluate other people’s attitudes is not a very informative measure.

  2. Clare:

    I think you’re misunderstanding the different ways that “friendliness” can be used in relation to tourism. You’re emphasizing the way regular people interact with tourists. Are they “friendly” in their interactions. That’s fine. But that’s clearly NOT how the WEF is using the term. The report is looking at whether a country is “friendly” to tourism (not to tourists) as an economic sector. Asking Bolivian business people this is perfectly acceptable (and better than asking tourists), since the report is looking to see whether those involved in the tourist *sector* (i.e. people who run tourism businesses) believe that the country’s policies are friendly/supportive to their sector.

    Look, I like Bolivia, too. But let’s be honest (and you’ve said so yourself at times): The Bolivian government doesn’t do enough to promote tourism as an economic sector. That’s what the report is pointing to. It was *NOT* a survey of whether tourists feel that Bolivians were friendly to them or whether they had a pleasant experience. It was a survey of which countries had more vital, competitive tourist sectors. Really, it was in about which countries were “friendlier” to tourism businesses (not tourists, as CNN misunderstood).

  3. I might also point out that the example you gave above reinforced the WEF report. Sure, the local did the best they could to consider the needs of tourists (which I agree are secondary). But the fact that a blockade was necessary, and that the infrastructure in a region that should be a tourism draw (Lake Titicaca countryside) was neglected by the government suggests that the country is not “friendly” to tourism. Which makes sense, since the governments (past and present) have consistently emphasized extractive industries and exports, not service sectors (which includes tourism), in their development policies.

  4. I would just like to know if this is all tourists or American tourists? I would guess that $135 reciprocity visa has gone a long way to reducing American tourism to Bolivia and could mean part of that generically unfriendly status.

  5. Miguel, no offense, but you are wrong.

    The overall report is about tourism as a sector, and as such deals with a number of different factors (economics, infrastructure, etc). But the particular numbers I discuss are very specifically about the attitudes of locals towards foreigners. The data in the report that I am talking about, and that CNN is reporting on, is called “Attitude of population toward foreign visitors” (see above). This was listed as “affinity” in the Travel & Tourism report. While CNN has dressed up “affinity” as “friendliness,” this is not about your idea of economic friendliness at all. I encourage you to look at the original T&T report, “pillar 12” which are the numbers I am discussing here, and the Global Competitiveness Report where those data were taken from.

    As for the blockade itself, I think that does prove my point that locals (at least the ones I know) are generally friendly to tourists in the sense that they take their needs into account, even in a context where it might seem counter intuitive for them to do that. I agree with you that there are barriers to tourism in terms of infrastructure, government policies, and the like.

    This WEF report notes other problems in Bolivian tourism, some of which are accurate. Regardless, this report IS saying that Bolivians are unfriendly towards foreigners, that is what has been picked up by the press, and I feel that needs to be addressed in part because of the long history of claiming that indigenous Bolivians are “hostile,” something I will take up again in another post.

  6. Clare:

    I looked at it a little more closely, thought it seems that the “affinity” pillar was barely mentioned and was perhaps less important than the various others. That said, only one of the four parts of that pillar was (perhaps) questionable, which is about “openness to foreigners”. That’s a subjective question, of course. But if they surveyed business (presumably tourism business) operators across the world and got the answers they got, then that’s something.

    The other three components of the “affinity” pillar had much more to do with tourism sector, not popular attitudes towards tourists. And I suspect that the survey questions aimed at that, as well. (It’s common to ask a series of different questions and then produce a composite score on some dimension, such as “openness to foreigners.)

    I have to say, as both a Bolivian and someone who has also lived extensively in Bolivia and has a lot of friends and family still living in Bolivia, and has repeatedly travelled to Bolivia: I do think Bolivia is not a good “tourist” destination, when compared to the options. Sure, people on the street are friendly enough. And in the tourist areas, they’ll be open and even accommodating. But there’s a reason Bolivia isn’t the first place people think of for tourism, and instead go to Brazil, Costa Rica, Mexico, Chile, etc.

    The report is not (in my opinion) about “indigenous” people at all. I think you’re projecting that. It’s about whether the government (and perhaps the political culture more generally, though that’s a loaded concept) are encouraging tourism and facilitating it. Bolivia’s government has never done that. There’s no ministry of tourism, like there is many countries. There’s no public support for tourism institutionally. Sure, there’s a lot of tourism going on (mostly adventure tourism), but it’s ad hoc and piecemeal. There’s not an overarching institutional framework to support and foster it, let alone promote it overseas.

    I think rather than criticize the report for being “unkind” to Bolivia. I prefer to use it as a place to argue that the government should do more to foster tourism. Tourism is a great way to grow the economy (as part of a broader package) in ways that directly promote local development and improve people’s lives. Instead, the current government wants to continue 1950s style extractive policies that grow the GDP, but do little to promote long term sustainable development.

  7. Ruth, when you say “Possible conclusion: asking businesspeople to evaluate other people’s attitudes is not a very informative measure” that is exactly what I think. It tells us something, but little about how tourists would describe their experiences. The relationships between tourists and locals are certainly mediated by government policies, transportation infrastructure, etc, but they are not completely defined by those structures either.

    Sara, I wonder about that as well. There is another section on “visa reform” in the report, and Bolivia scores quite well on that. Also, the majority of tourists to Bolivia are European or Latin American, so they are not affected by the US visa restrictions. But the idea that restricting US visitors is a problem for Bolivian tourism seemed to be a common one when I was last there. (I have not seen data on whether those fears have been realized.)

    Miguel, I agree the report is not about indigenous people per se. However, given that indigenous culture is a major tourist attraction in Bolivia (actively promoted by governmental offices such as the Viceministry of Tourism, which you dismiss), I think it is relevant. Even the photo CNN ran next to this article is of a folklorico dance at a street festival, highly evocative of indigenous culture.

    If I can find out more about the specific methodology used to collect this data in Bolivia, perhaps we’ll be able to say more about whether these ideas played a role.

  8. Clare:

    How does Bolivia’s Viceministry of Tourism (or, rather, its activities) compare to those of other countries (especially peer countries)?

    I think you’re too focused on the social interactions of actual tourists and Bolivian locals (of which, you only have a selective sample). The problem is that tourism *IS* significantly mediated by government policies, transportation infrastructure, etc. If you only look at actual tourists and find that they have relatively happy experiences, you have are missing all the non tourists who don’t come. I’m sure we can agree that Bolivian tourists are a special breed of adventure, backpacker, “hippy” types. The rougher the conditions, the more they will enjoy themselves.

    But your average middle class tourist is looking for something else. I’m not suggesting that they’re right. And I’m not saying that middle class people can’t enjoy themselves in Bolivia (especially in today’s “boom” economy). But tourism—as a global market—is what the WEF report is looking at (after all, this is an organization that promotes globalization). The bottom line is that Bolivia is simply NOT competitive in the global tourism market. Which is sad, because it has much to offer if it were better promoted and facilitated with government policies.

    If I remember, Clare, I think you mentioned a few times how some of the people in the tourist industry you’ve talked to regularly complained about the lack of support they received from the government. I know I’ve often heard from tourism operators that it’s just too difficult to make a go of it. I knew a few alpinistas who left the country because they just can’t make a living any more.

    Bolivians personally may very well be very friendly to tourists. And perhaps that part of the survey was poorly operationalized. But I think the overall argument that Bolivia’s tourism sector isn’t globally competitive seems correct.

  9. Miguel, of course tourism is mediated by larger forces; that is obvious. But the issue I am addressing here is the media report that Bolivians — as people — are unfriendly, which is based on data that doesn’t support that claim.

  10. […] How “unfriendly” is Bolivia to tourists? Musings on the misleading uses of survey d… […]

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  12. Now I’m confused. Are you complaining about the bad CNN story (which is no surprise, knowing CNN)? Or the WEF survey data? Because I’m with you on the former, but not the latter.

    The WEF survey has the advantage of being comparative, using a universal survey instrument across the various countries. Any bias in the question should be noticeable across countries.

    I’m also not troubled by the fact that the survey asked business people to tell about what they think “other people” in their country’s attitudes are. First, because if this was done across all countries, any bias should be universal. Second, because asking these kinds of questions are common practice in surveys when you want to tap into popular attitudes on a touchy subject.

    For example, prior to the 2008 presidential election in the US more than 80% of people polled said they personally would have no problem voting for a black presidential candidate. But in the same poll, about 50% of those same respondents stated that they didn’t think “other people” would vote for a black candidate. Which number is more accurate of public attitudes about race? The question that asks if you (the respondent) is a racist, or the one that asks whether you think “other people” are racist? This is an old survey questionnaire technique to gage attitudes about race, gender, etc.

    So I think the WEF data is good. Now, if your beef is entirely with CNN. Well, join the club. But, then again, I gave up on CNN knowing anything about anything years ago.

  13. I have backpacked from Mexico to Tierra del Fuego and you are a LIAR. Indigenous Bolivians are notorious for being UNFRIENDLY to backpackers. Every backpacker i met from Denmark to the US. to Portugal to Argentina Agrees. You must have a spanish schol in sucre or something why areyou LYING to people.

  14. Also seems like you are a self-hating american referring to yourself as a “Gringo” you think that HELPS how we are treated. I respect myself and do ot permit indians or latinos to call me “Gringo”. I don’t LIKE it.

  15. Hello Tatiana,

    Welcome to the GT, and thank you for your comments — even if, obviously, I disagree.

    First, you can see that I blog under my real name, and I am easy to look up, so it should be easy to verify that I do not in fact participate in any paid teaching in Bolivia nor do I have a school in Sucre (a town I only visited once). I have no direct financial interest in any Bolivian business.

    Of course people have different experiences while traveling, and I’m sorry to hear that you had a bad one. Feel free to tell us about it — or blog about it elsewhere, and I’ll link here. People do have bad touristic experiences in all sorts of places (even Europe!), but that’s not a trend. And, as I’m arguing here, the data that WEF has presented wouldn’t prove a trend like that anyway. To prove that Bolivians are “unfriendly” to tourists — they would have to ask people like you, who have experienced Bolivia as tourists.

    And no, I’m not a self-hating anything (although yes, I am American). Please read the “History” section to see how the title of the blog came about. Words don’t mean the same thing everywhere, and “gringo” does not mean the same thing in highland Bolivia as it does in Mexico, for example. But to be fair, highland Bolivians don’t normally call me “gringa” either, given that they are usually very formal. They usually call me by my name. 🙂

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