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La Paz on Foot was honored to represents its indigenous partners in Bolivia at the Fourth International Aboriginal Tourism Conference held in Quebec City, Canada from the 23rd to the 25th of March, 2015. The conference, sponsored in part by ATTA member WINTA (the World Indigenous Tourism Alliance) brought together industry and indigenous community representatives from around the world to learn from one another about diverse efforts to improve, promote and empower the role of indigenous peoples in tourism.
La Paz on Foot delivered a presentation, titled “Strength and Resilience through Diversifying our Customer Base,” focused on commitments to growing customer bases with and for its indigenous partners. In Bolivia, La Paz on Foot’s main region of focus, indigenous communities are increasingly seen as protagonists in the country’s tourism sector. While this is not surprising considering that Bolivia’s overall population is majority indigenous, it is not until recently that native communities have emerged as leaders, as opposed to subjects, in the industry.
“What makes our work in Bolivia unique,” explained Stephen Taranto, La Paz on Foot’s Director of Programs, “is that where we work nearly everyone is indigenous . . . white guys like me, with Italian last names and blue eyes, are an exception!” This reality has been underscored by the increasing number of community-based tourism enterprises initiated and carried forward by indigenous groups around the country, now numbering more than 100 and almost always located in or near Bolivia’s spectacular protected areas.
In particular, La Paz on Foot shared its now eight years of experience working with the Aymara community of Santiago de Okola, located on the shore of Lake Titicaca in Bolivia. What began as an informal relationship has grown into a formal partnership between equals, each party bringing knowledge, experience and visions to the table. “We depend upon each other, and we know each others limitations,” related Stephen during his talk, “And when it comes to building a customer base, we have found that honesty is the best policy – honesty with our clients about what to expect and why conditions in Santiago de Okola are the way they are and honesty with the community about what are clients expect and what we, as the intermediary, need to be able to provide.”
Among the many results of the collaboration, including a slow but steady increase in the number of overnight stays and the discovery of the village as a weekend get-away for locals from La Paz, is a trusting relationship between historically opposed parties that is permitting growth, a kind of growth that respects the realities of indigenous communities and the changes that tourism brings and that is bringing together unexpected and hoped for participants, from local, Bolivian tourists to volunteers to youth from the village who otherwise might simply migrate to the city when they are old enough to do so.
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