Former Philippines Tourism Secretary Guillermina Gabor at the Planet People Peace Conference. Photos: Paula Alvarado.
What's much less talked about is the question of conserving local cultures, threatened not only by globalization of products and brands, but also of aspirations: especially in developing countries, low income people associate success with leaving behind everything they know and becoming the closest to a westerner they can (the trend is changing, yes, but it's still the rule).
It's not by chance that this year's Planet, People, Peace conference, which took place until yesterday in Costa Rica, is focused around this subject: keeping local cultures alive is crucial for the business of tourism. After all, who wants to go to the Philippines to hear American music?
But how exactly one goes around doing this? Two talks showed different approaches from the Philippines and Mexico.
Sustainable Tourism Education In The Philippines
Former Philippines' Tourism Secretary Guillermina Gabor was a keynote speaker at the conference, where she talked about the International School Of Sustainable Tourism's efforts to make communities aware that travelers value what they have to offer and promote local habits and traditions. "There are many tropical countries in the world, so how do we differentiate from each other? Through culture. It's what makes us thick," Gabor said.
Her school efforts include programs to help locals create more attractive products with native materials that can serve as useful souvenirs for travelers, and encouraging families to offer home-stays for visitors to have a deeper immersion in the culture, creating income for communities while also showing them their tradition's value.
How do you actually convince people of this when they don't see its importance for themselves? Ironically, bringing an outsider. "Half the people that work with out organization are foreigners. It's funny, but locals don't want to hear it from us, because they may think that we don't want them to make money. When they hear it from a foreigner, they pay attention," she explains.
So local authorities, community leaders and even priests are lured to the school, where (for low or no cost, depending on the sponsors they can get) they get special courses teaching them about the importance of these subjects and how these practices can bring better income for their economies.
Arts of Mexico Magazine
Another speaker at the event was Margarita de Orellana, who has an amazing editorial project called Artes de Mexico (Arts of Mexico) whose aim is to collect and spread Mexican culture that's being lost to globalization.
The magazine, which has an impressive resume of awards and recognitions, showcases anything from Mexican artists' works to the role of crops like corn, agave and cacao in the country's culture. Some cool facts she mentioned around this: agave stalks used to be destined to construction since once they dried out, they became so hard they were very resistent and could last for 20 years; and a worm that is found in this plant is apparently one of the most delicious delicacies one can try.
"In my country we're losing our cultures: we used to have over 150 languages and ethnic groups when the Spanish arrived, and now we only have 62, which are disappearing day by day," said De Orellana.
"Sustainable tourism can be very helpful [to keep native cultures alive], but it's important that people inform themselves about where they're going before heading somewhere. Travelers need to be very delicate and respectful, and when they are, they're accepted and invited by communities," she said.
As Gabor and others said, even though travel has a considerable carbon footprint, it also promotes development and, especially when oriented to understanding local cultures, even peace. Hopefully this trend of tourism bonding with native traditions won't turn into a bland offering of 'authentic' experiences that are more a gimmick than actual interaction.
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