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Community Tourism in Ecuador

Development Model Is Transforming Villages

Market in Ecuador House in Ecuador
Shopping for fruit in Otavalo, Ecuador; A local home in one of the communities in the Ricancie Network, Machacuyako, Ecuador.

On a frigid Andean night last summer I broke bread with a Quichua community in Chilcapamba, Ecuador. We traded jokes and uncertain glances, working to get to know one another. I was there as a paying guest to experience a development model that is transforming villages throughout Ecuador: community tourism.

Travelers, local communities, and international organizations are calling for more community tourism opportunities, but few people fully consider the paradox this presents. Welcoming visitors is necessarily welcoming change. The market is thriving, but by definition it must restrain itself. A sense of being a minority in a new, not wholly understood, place is central to community tourism’s increasing appeal.

In Ecuador there are opportunities to live in indigenous Amazonian villages, go downriver in a dugout canoe, or stare up at the Southern Cross from Andean communities still unblemished by light pollution. Many visitors are not at all interested in questions about ownership and profit. Yet for communities these questions may matter most.

The fee for tourists there is $20 a night. The families receive $8 and must provide dinner and breakfast. Promotion and office space seem like they shouldn’t require much, but some communities have learned of their importance the hard way. A village I visited in the Amazon, Capirona, was an early entrepreneur in community tourism. They simply built cabanas and advertised locally, then had no visitors for the first three years. They needed connections to the outside world.

The families’ pay compares favorably with the wages of local flower industry workers, which are typically $5 to $7 for 12 hours of ceaseless labor. The long-standing disparity between rich and poor throughout Latin America makes $8 a day look like a comparatively decent wage.

Oddly enough, the free market and the growing reality of pluralism have created incentives for the preservation of Quichua culture: communities that host visitors regularly report that their children’s knowledge of culture and tradition is substantially higher than would otherwise be the case. My contribution came through staying with the family of Segundo and Virginia Morales in Chilcapamba. When Runa Tupari, a network of community tourism opportunities in north-central Ecuador, began working with families interested in hosting, they quickly realized there wasn’t enough room in the houses to accommodate guests, especially guests with any expectation of privacy. They cooperated with community members to build homes of the same shape and size as the families’ homes to be dedicated guest quarters. I thought my digs next to the Morales home were outright luxurious. While the floor in the Morales home was flat cement, I had continuous ceramic tile. While their beds were squished tightly together and flies buzzed through the kitchen, I stretched out and saw no bugs. Authentic living with this particular family would have been at least somewhat dirtier and less spacious.

The whole process was what I made of it, and through my questions I would learn about the very particular experiences of this family in this community in this part of Ecuador. Precisely the kind of learning that takes place is an open question. It is reminiscent of the trend in U.S. museums to offer edutainment, an authentically educational experience that is nonetheless integrated with overtly fun and entertaining experiences. Community tourism does achieve the ultimate aim of edutainment: it makes learning fun.

Indigenous families I talked with throughout Ecuador put access to good education for their children at the top of their wish lists. The Morales family was in fact using the extra income to send their children to better schools. If the kids choose modern, professional careers will their families still be able to host community tourists? Virginia, the mother, has already given up cooking over a fire in favor of a two-burner propane stove. How will the tourist money and interaction have altered the community by the next time I visit?