I had the pleasure of visiting an amazing set of community-based tourism projects in northern Ecuador a few years back. With interactive experiences, genuine connections, fantastic conversation – authenticity at it's best. Having made my way southward down through Peru, I was keen to check out a much more popular community tourism project I had heard about, visiting families on the islands of Lake Titicaca.
Here is the setting – a beautiful, enormous, deep blue-colored lake shared between Peru and Bolivia, dotted with a few inhabited islands on both sides of the border. Lake Titicaca rests at 3810 meters (12,500 ft) above sea level, making it the highest navigable lake on the planet. Puno, the largest city on the Peruvian side, is a major hub for travelers doing the circuit within Peru, or en-route to or from Bolivia. The primary activity to do in Puno is to visit the islands of Lake Titicaca, with many people spending the night on the islands. And there are no less than 100 different tour agencies in town who want to sell you their version of a visit to communities on the islands of Taquile and Amantani.
In theory, the community tourism system is brilliant for the islanders. I give enormous credit to the founders of this system, which is nearly 35 years old. Rather than build hotels on Taquile and Amantani, they established a rotating system of family homestays. This creates a much more fair system, and distributes tourism profits to many instead of few. And, it offers travelers an opportunity to get a peak into the lives and cultures of the islanders. For years, the community tourism project on Lake Titicaca was a role model success story. But recently, the project has become a victim of its own success.
Upon arriving in Puno, I already knew there were some issues surrounding the community visits on Amantani and Taquile. The guidebooks are quick to point out some of the flaws of the system – primarily the unregulated tour agencies who are famous for undercutting the host families to offer travelers the lowest price. Some of the worst offenders are known to pay families little more than the price of the food served during your visit. Fortunately, savvy travelers can easily sidestep the agencies and travel to the islands independently, and by doing so, ensure that families are paid a fair price by handing the money directly to their hosts.
Feeling good about myself for taking the more tedious, expensive, and independent route, I was excited to meet with our family and learn more about their perspective of tourism to their homes. All in all, I enjoyed my visit to the island, but there were some things that surprised and disappointed me. I learned that my host family receives guests about once a month, based on the rotating system established on the island. I also learned that certain other families receive visitors nearly every day, because they have developed special relationships with certain agencies in Puno. There is some animosity between families on the island who are playing by the rules (i.e. receiving visitors in the established rotating system) and those who are cutting in line (i.e. creating exclusive relationships with tour agencies). The irony is, those who play by the rules get a much better paycheck than those cutting in line, but high volume for the cutters more than makes up the difference.
My interaction with the host family was enjoyable in some respects, and just plain awkward in others. The host father, Alquino, was incredibly friendly and welcoming, and I learned a lot from our conversations. His wife, Gladys, started off friendly when she picked us up from the port, but when we politely declined to buy her textiles and crafts, she ceased to talk to us for the rest of our visit. In thinking over this situation, I realized that this woman has one chance per month to sell her hats, sweaters, tablecloths, etc, and when we said “no”, she's out of luck until next month. The problem, however, is that she was expecting to sell things to her visitors, and that's not right. The only expectation she should have is that I am paying my fair rate for room and board (in fact, a much better rate than many of her neighbors thanks to my efforts to cut out the middle man). Making your guests feel awkward and guilty for not buying your crafts is similar to begging kids making you feel bad when you don't give them handouts – both a result of too much tourism.
Finally, the vast majority of people visiting the island stay only for one night (myself included), arriving mid-day, and leaving early the following morning. Eighteen hours is simply not enough time to have a meaningful interaction with a whole family. From my Ecuador experiences, I know it takes days before people even begin open up to you. A one night stay is almost voyeuristic – come get a quick peak at how poor people live, pretend to get to know them over three meals, and then take off back to the mainland. Of course, these are not the intentions of the travelers, but it can be the result of the agency-driven structure.
So, the system isn't perfect. But despite my complaints, I still feel a visit to the communities of Taquile and Amantani is worthwhile, educational, and enjoyable. If you do visit the islands, a few simple choices can significantly increase your positive impact – avoid the agencies and stay more than 1 night. High volume community tourism is a very difficult and delicate balancing act. I can say with confidence that the communities of Lake Titicaca are benefiting from tourism to their homes, and considering its mass popularity, that alone is a noteworthy accomplishment.
The Yanapana Foundation is a local NGO dedicated to supporting the communities along the Salkantay Trek, and many of its projects are focused on small business development for women-run cooperatives.
Want to know what it's like to volunteer in Peru? A globe-trotting voluntourist, Colleen Finn, shares her experience teaching english to a class of 5th and 6th grade students in Pumamarca.