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…

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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.

Are Bolivians “unfriendly” to tourists?! Part 2

In my last post I discussed a recent CNN article claiming that Bolivians were the people most “unfriendly” towards tourists.  I traced a game of telephone through the reports, where asking local businesspeople about attitudes of the national population to foreign visitors, was translated into “affinity for tourism,” was then translated by CNN into which people are “friendliest” towards tourists.

Of course, it makes a great headline for CNN.  You thought the French were rude to tourists (following one common stereotype), but no!  It’s Bolivians.  Except my experience tells me that’s not true, and the data presented don’t seem to support that claim either.

There are those who will argue that this doesn’t matter that much.  After all, some of my interlocutors (here and on Facebook) have pointed out that media sources misuse data all the time for better headlines, and that the Bolivian tourism industry faces many challenges anyway.

I would argue this is precisely why it does matter.  Bolivia — both the government and individual Bolivians — are desperately trying to increase tourism revenue in a context of global economic crisis which has hit the industry hard, and the last thing they need are false rumors about the people being “unfriendly” being circulated in the international press.

I know from experience the disproportionate effect media reporting can have on the fickle industry of tourism.  I was in Costa Rica in 1996 when a German tourist and her Swiss guide were kidnapped out of a hotel.  Although they were released, the perpetrators were captured, and this was an isolated incident rather than part of a pattern of tourist kidnappings, German media sources reported widely on the event, and German tourism to Costa Rica tanked for several years.

Media coverage absolutely matters, and we ignore it at our peril.

I promised an update on the methodology of the survey conducted among Bolivian businesspeople that produced this data.  Here’s another WEF report with some details about the 2011 survey.  I’ll summarize the information presented about Bolivia specifically.

79 people completed the survey in Bolivia, 100% of them online.  Of those, 92% worked in businesses of less that 101 employees, and none worked in businesses with more than 1000 employees.

Using statistical methods, they then weighted the responses received so they match the distribution of economic sectors in the nation (in terms of % of GDP):

Once the data have been edited, individual answers
are aggregated at the country level. We compute
sector-weighted country averages to obtain a more
representative average that takes into account the
structure of a country’s economy. The structure is
defined by the estimated contributions to a country’s
gross domestic product of each of the four main economic sectors: agriculture, manufacturing industry, nonmanufacturing industry, and services.

For Bolivia, this weighting is Agriculture 14%, Manufacturing 14%, Nonmanufacturing 22%, and Services 50%.  What is included in each of these is not outlined here (although it is fairly standard).  Tourism falls under “services,” but it isn’t the only business represented there.  I assume this means than fewer than half of the weighted responses come from individuals working in tourism in some capacity.

In other words, the businesspeople asked about “attitudes of the population towards foreign visitors” no doubt included some people who work in tourism, but was absolutely not a survey aimed exclusively, or even primarily, at tourism professionals.

I’m still looking for a full description of the methods used in this survey.  More to  follow if I find it.



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.

Tastes Like Pets: Horses, Llamas, and Burger King

Many of you are no doubt aware of the recent scandal involving horse meat found in Burger King hamburgers in the U.K.  It has been reported on in many media outlets, including NPR and the Guardian, and has resulted in Burger King dropping the supplier in question, an Irish company supplying meat from slaughterhouses in Poland.  If there were any lingering doubts about fast food as global industry, this should lay them to rest.

Despite the good nutritional quality of horse meat, the response has been outrage.  Apparently many who are willing to accept the industrial process for producing beef are not so generous if the meat comes from some other domesticated quadruped.  The reasons for this seem obvious to anthropologists, and were outlined long ago by Marshall Sahlins in his piece on the American taboo against eating dog meat.  He argues that the place of dogs as liminal, but very real, members of American households (a.k.a. “pets”) makes their consumption something akin to cannibalism, and thus subject to the same taboo.

Horses have a similar position as “pets” in our society, generally speaking.  While horses are not members of as many households, they are generally seen as upper-class pets, human companions, and beings with which humans have social relationships.  Thus they are seen by many Americans and Britons as off-limits as food.  (Of course, that cultural association is not universal by any means.)

This leads to some interesting situations.  When I was researching the consumption of llama meat in La Paz, Bolivia in 1993-1994, this topic was of great interest to people in the U.S.  I was asked, on many occasions,  whether llama meat tasted like horse meat.  This was a question I was never asked by Bolivians when telling them about my research, whether they had eaten llama or not.

I found this question odd, albeit telling, because those asking had invariably never tried either horse or llama meat.  So why ask if one food you haven’t tried tastes like another food you haven’t tried?  The association is entirely cultural.  Both animals are seen, by those in the U.S., as expensive four-legged pets.  Rather than asking the stereotypical question of whether llama tastes like chicken, the first thing that came to mind was the animal that fits into the same social relationship with people: the horse.

The unfortunate part is that I have never eaten horse meat (no objection to it, it’s just never come up) and so I have no idea whether llama tastes like horse or not.  I am forced to compare llama (favorably!) to beef and mutton.

Blaming vegans, ignoring celiacs: an update on quinoa quarrels

Slate has jumped on the quinoa media bandwagon, with Ari LeVaux telling us that it’s ok to eat quinoa.  Overall, I think his article is a well-written corrective to recent media negativity.  I want to focus on one of his points:

Interestingly, the Guardian story seemed as much a hit-piece on vegetarians and vegans as on quinoa eaters. (“Britain excels in producing meat and dairy foods … However, a rummage through the shopping baskets of vegetarians and vegans swiftly clocks up the food miles, a consequence of their higher dependency on products imported from faraway places.”)

I completely agree with LeVaux on this point — what originally caught my attention about the Guardian piece was its “blame the vegans” tone.  This struck me as strange, given how few Americans are vegetarians: about 3% of adults, with 0.5% being vegans.  (Numbers in the UK appear to be similar.)  Of course, these are still large absolute numbers; U.S. vegetarians alone are almost as numerous as the entire population of Bolivia (7.3 million vs. 10 million).

But there is an interesting omission here, too.  Another group that touts quinoa consumption, and has gone unmentioned in all the media stories I linked to my last post, are those following gluten-free diets, such as those with celiac disease.  Diagnosed celiacs in the U.S. number in the tens of thousands (many more are undiagnosed) and gluten-free foods are a $5 billion/year industry.  (I haven’t seen any good statistics on how many people actually maintain a gluten-free diet, although I would love to see those numbers.)  But this has not attracted any mention, unlike vegetarian/vegan consumption of quinoa.

I suspect this is because U.S. readers place those two forms of eating into different categories — food vs medicine — even though the boundaries between them are fuzzy.  Despite the fact that much quinoa in the U.S. is marketed as “gluten-free,” this aspect of its market appears to be beyond criticism.   Given the focus of the media on health issues and the latest life-extending weight-dropping fad diets, it is unsurprising that the quinoa critiques would focus on vegetarians (who supposedly avoid meat by choice) rather than celiacs (who must eat gluten-free for medical reasons).

If the purpose of a medically-recommended diet is to extend one’s life and improve its quality, however, then the distinction between vegetarian and gluten-free diets become far less clear.  Vegetarians often point out the health benefits of their diet (as well as the political, environmental, and ethical benefits), but we still see this as a diet of choice rather than one of medical necessity.  (Note: I say this as an unapologetic omnivore.)

So why blame the vegans?  Again, quinoa proves itself to be good to think about the patterns and politics of food consumption in the west.