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.

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2 Responses

  1. A culinary tour of Bolivia: cooking with altitude

    I had not signed up for this. A small corner cafe in the Bolivian city of El Alto and a steamy bowl of soup plonked down in front of me. The dish in question, a local speciality known as caldo de cardán, sounded fine until I heard the English translat.…

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