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.

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.

Llama meat in La Paz’s tourist district, June 2010

This is, in part, a shameless plug for Helen Haines and my upcoming edited volume Adventures in Eating: Anthropological Experiences in Dining from Around the World. In it, anthropoloigists discuss frankly what it’s like to be offered unfamiliar foods and how we can turn that discomfort into methodologically useful data.  The book is aimed at interested foodies, undergraduate anthropology students, and those interested in field methods and the anthropology of food.

My own chapter in this volume focuses on chuño, a popular Andean preparation of potatoes that involves freeze-drying them.  As a foil to this example, I chose my old favorite, llama meat (the subject of my B.A. thesis and an article).  The over-arching question is: Why is llama meat offered at tourist restaurants, while the far more commonly consumed chuño generally is not?

Asado de llama with French fries, top and center. Yum!!

Llamas are native to the pre-Columbian Andes, were bred largely for their meat (they were one of the few domesticated meat sources in the pre-Columbian Andes, along with guinea pig — the subject of another chapter in the Adventures volume), and continue to be raised and consumed.  And yes, both llama and guinea pig are delicious.

Fillet of Llama is the first item on this menu board.

I continue to be fascinated by the fact that llama meat is so prominent in La Paz’s touristic areas, where restaurants offer it (often in English) to foreign diners, while llama is conspicuously absent in restaurants in most of the rest of the city (with a few exceptions).

Even touristic food marked as "ethnic" (here: Thai) may include the Andean llama.

To learn more, you will of course have to read the book (or wait, in vain, for the movie to come out).

As promised – Tourism Toys!

As I mentioned in a comment below, part of the on-going bicentennial celebrations here include kids’ meal toys at Pollos Copacabana celebrating various “touristic” places around La Paz. Notable is that the “tourists” are little pollitos (the chain’s mascot) and therefore should probably be read as paceños, not foreign tourists. This is important for several reasons:

1. The people buying these meals are likely middle to upper class Bolivians with some disposable income, allowing them to be tourists at home, so to speak

2. They’re interested in some of the same activities as “gringos” (aka biking to Coroico) but perhaps they don’t do it with *all* the gear.

3. Quite frankly, it does seem that tourism has dropped off substantially here. Sure, there are backpacker types wandering around Sagarnaga, but it seems far fewer than in years past (just my impression) and even there I’ve heard not a single other U.S. accent. Therefore, who can keep all the tourism operators afloat? Hopefully locals who have the time and desire to take day or weekend trips to “know” their department.

And now, without further ado, the toys:
Pollos Copacabana at Tiwanaku

Pollitos biking to Coroico