I spent my three months in Peru studying and researching with the School for Field Studies. One of my most memorable moments was the day I hiked to a tiny village on a mountaintop with a woman herding llamas. The stout old woman marched up the mountain much faster than us students, all while spinning wool for the textiles that she would sell to us later. The program’s emphasis on sustainable development led me into ecotourism, which helps communities and individuals, such as the llama herder, benefit from the tourism they support.
Ecotourism aims to deliver benefits from an enterprise back into the local economy and community. However, it remains difficult to determine whether or not local tourism companies are genuinely alleviating community needs. Unfortunately, very few benefits of an ecotourism program may actually go back into the community, and instead benefit a multinational company, as with standard tourism. However, the extraordinary potential of ecotourism is visible in one Peruvian ecotourism organization called Llama Pack Project, a small expeditions company launched with the explicit intent to use tourism to help the local community.
Llama Pack is a noteworthy organization that seems to truly seek to add value to the communities in which it is involved, thus transcending the trendy “eco” prefix. While “ecotourism” does not have one unified definition, certain aspects separate this travel style from regular tourism. After spending time with Llama Pack and similar companies, I observed three conditions that make a tourism company deserving of the “eco” prefix:
- Education and empowerment of local people;
- Involvement of women and other disadvantaged groups in program function and administration; and
- Giving back economically, socially, and environmentally to the community.
As the Llama Pack staff explained, one of the main goals of the program is to bring tourism to the indigenous people who live up in the mountains away from the city, where they are otherwise isolated from the tourism money that is pumped into the economy in big cities and popular tourist sites. This contrasts with examples of ecotourism that do not monetarily benefit the local community as much as they could, such as Sherpas in Nepal, who tend not to receive an adequate portion of tourism money, especially given the difficult work they do.
As an ecotourism organization, Llama Pack focuses on pumping as much money into the local economy as possible while opening up opportunities for families to lead, feed, teach, and sell textiles to tourists. The diversity of jobs that the local citizens can participate opens up paths of income to a multitude of people in the community, and includes women, children, and people with different skills and abilities. With Llama Pack, families can benefit from each other’s treks by feeding the tourists when they reach the community or selling their textiles, which opens up economic opportunities to people of multiple skill specializations and both genders. For example, the herder we followed up the mountain was female and a woman sold us textiles in the town.
Another requirement for sustainable ecotourism is environmental sustainability. Mt. Everest ecotourism in Nepal, for example, has left negative environmental impacts that worsen the quality of life for the locals. Anything environmentally unsustainable is also economically unsustainable because depleting local resources will always catch up to the local businesses that rely on them. Llama Pack takes this into very high consideration. One of the reasons for starting this project was that llamas are better for the local ecosystem than horses and donkeys. Llamas have padded feet that do not crush fragile plants, and they chew the tops of plants instead of uprooting the entire organism. They fall into a natural equilibrium with the environment that they have lived in for millennia. In fact, one of the goals of the program is to breed large pack llamas like the ones that used to effectively carry large loads of crops up and down the mountain for trade.
Ecotourism places a high value on indigenous knowledge and tradition. Indigenous people are the experts in their surroundings and what their community has and needs. Llama pack accomplishes this task by letting locals set up their own goals. They are not forced to participate in the program, and are only included if they choose to approach the coordinators of the project. They do not force local residents to change their habits, and they respect their indigenous knowledge of the land around them. The project’s goal is not to implement urban ideals on the high Andean people; it is to give the people a leg up in whatever they want to pursue.
Specifically, Llama Pack is working to educate the young members of Cancha Cancha of the importance of sustainability to help raise the next generation of caretakers in the Andes. They are raising funds for a children’s book on the environmental importance of llamas. They hope to be able to give one to each family in the community to increase the sustainability and long-term benefits of their project. The education of the youth is an undeniable requirement for sustainable society because the youth will become the decision makers in only two or three decades.
One place where Llama Pack could improve is in including local men and women in their management. Ideally, Llama Pack managers would be working on educating the next generation of community citizens and bringing locals into managerial positions to eventually make their own foreign influence unnecessary. This is what Rainforest Expeditions, a chain of three tourist lodges in Peru, is trying to accomplish.
One of Rainforest Expeditions’ lodges is a town called Infierno, where all the families are stakeholders in the lodge that gives them extra income, as well as education, healthcare, and social benefits from the program. Many members of the community work in the lodge and the owners actively try to increase the locals’ involvement in the administration. This is a more economically and environmentally sustainable project because of the locals’ involvement. It could also be detrimental culturally, as it could disrupt the natural balance of their traditional economy, but as long as the foreign entrepreneurs maintain respect of local practices and knowledge, the lodge could provide a lasting economic and social benefit.
As tourism becomes a more popular and accessible form of entertainment in our modernizing world, it is important to create and follow reliable and consistent guidelines on how to responsibly tour another area and culture without imposing our own culture on them or appropriating theirs. The most important aspects of a beneficial and sustainable ecotourism program is the inclusion of all members of the local community, respect for indigenous knowledge, education and local empowerment, and direct economic and environmental benefits for the community.