Inevitable Change: Tourism’s Impact on Indigenous Communities in Guatemala

Bowker - Guatemala - TourismI have returned to Guatemala to do field research for the NYU CLACS masters program after having served in this country as a Peace Corps volunteer from 2008-2010. Even though I am now in a different location of the country from when I served as a volunteer, many elements of the towns San Pedro La Laguna and San Juan La Laguna are familiar and ubiquitously Guatemalan. The major difference about these communities in comparison to other parts of the country is their ability to use tourism as a development strategy and how this has changed the people’s everyday lives and culture.

My research interest lies with the cultural elements that are unique to these two towns because of their high connection with the outside world. The town’s geography gives them both their own feel and how they have used tourism differently has had significant impacts on everyday life. Situated alongside the beautiful Lake Atitlan surrounded by volcanoes at an altitude of over five thousand feet, both San Pedro and San Juan have something to offer the bold tourist who craves a unique cultural experience. Over the past twenty years these communities have developed with the aid of tourism, but poverty still grips the lives of the majority of the town’s inhabitants. Trying to understand this situation will take time and patience. After being here a week, I have identified many people who have unique perspectives that will benefit my research.  

My intention is to observe and discuss how the indigenous inhabitants of these two towns have used tourism to bolster their living condition and add to the overall economy. I have already come to the conclusion that part of my initial hypothesis is a little off; not totally wrong, but not correct. It seems that there are many indigenous owned and operated businesses in the town of San Pedro and San Juan. I wrote in my research proposal that San Pedro had many foreign owned businesses that were occupying space and limiting the autonomy of the indigenous people. This is true, there are many foreign owned businesses in San Pedro, but as I found out through my source known as Burrito Bill, these foreigners do not own the property and must rent from local Guatemalans.

In the weeks that follow I will examine the way San Juan and San Pedro have gone about using tourism as a development strategy. Though San Juan is less “developed”, I have been told that the community has taken a more integrated approach to tourism and therefore has avoided certain adverse societal effects that San Pedro and other communities have suffered. Trying to determine how San Juan has planned its slower growth and diversified economy will be a major focus in my research. I will also detail the adverse effects suffered by nearby communities and try to determine what has brought about these effects i.e. increased drug use, loss of indigenous culture, and racism towards foreigners.

While the towns in question remain heavily indigenous, change through interaction with the industrialized world is inevitable. If change happens too fast people tend to become upset. How can we learn from these towns’ experiences to determine a general philosophy using tourism as a development strategy in indigenous communities? In this process I am questioning the notion of neoliberal development in general. Is the western world´s demand to visit exotic places doing more harm to indigenous peoples´ way of life than good? The many debates surrounding tourism in the development arena are coming to life before my eyes and I do not know what conclusions more time here will bring.

Posted by Dave Bowker – MA Candidate at CLACS

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