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By: Margot Davier / Québec Science

A four-wheel-drive vehicle hurtles across an immense white plain, stretching as far as the eye can see. But it’s not a bed of limestone and it's far from being snow: it’s the world's most famous salt flat, the Salar de Uyuni. This natural jewel of Bolivia stretches over nearly 10,500 km2 and lies at an altitude of 3,658 metres. Located in the province of South Lípez—an arid region near the Chilean border—this unreal landscape turns magical during the rainy season, between December and March. The ground becomes covered with a thin layer of water, creating a dazzling mirror effect. Some guides offer tourists the opportunity to pose on this completely flat surface, which creates optical illusions and completely distorts distances. 

According to the latest available data, 298,000 people visited the salt flat in 2016. While the Salar de Uyuni remains one of the country's most popular destinations, along with the capital La Paz, the rest of the nation is not nearly as popular, despite its enormous potential. 

At least that's the diagnosis reached by the 15-person team at Orbita — a Bolivian sustainable tourism observatory and research centre. The centre was inaugurated in 2022, under the leadership of the Fundación IES (a private non-profit organization) and the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), which comprises several national institutes, including one in Bolivia. Orbita is supported by Canada's International Development Research Centre (IDRC), which is why we visited Bolivia. 

The goal of the project, which began in 2022 and will run until May 2024, is to produce evidence of Bolivia's tourism appeal and provide data to encourage investment to foster a responsible model. Research will guide tourism to provide high-quality jobs, while respecting the environment. “The ultimate objective is to understand how and under what circumstances tourism can be a tool for inclusive development and benefit the entire population, especially women, who occupy 72% of jobs in the sector," Julian Vargas, consultant at Fundación IES, enthusiastically points out. 

The stakes are high. The country of 12 million people is one of the poorest on the continent, with 13% of the population living in extreme poverty and 37% below the poverty line, according to figures from the World Food Programme. Indigenous communities are the most vulnerable. Could tourism turn the tide? 

A man pulls a boat onto a beach
Andrea Fossati Durán/Sdsn Bolivia
The tiny island of Isla Chiquipa is home to just a few abandoned houses and a hut used by fishing enthusiasts.

More than just mining

The research group's first task is to compare the tourism sector with industries involved in exploiting natural resources. Bolivia's economy is heavily dependent on extractive industries (the famous Uyuni de Salar contains a quarter of the world's lithium reserves). Their main export sector is mining and oil operations, as evidenced by 2016–2019 figures: mineral exports represented US$3.8 billion annually, while oil and gas exports amounted to nearly US$2.7 billion. These two high-pollution industries generate jobs, but almost exclusively for men. 

Tourism, meanwhile, brought in US$799 million in 2019. The country boasts 1,200 hotels, plus hundreds of informal establishments and private accommodations, but dozens have closed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. That means that re-stimulating the sector — one of Orbita's stated objectives — is paramount. 

Although defined as a strategic sector, tourism receives only $8.7 million a year in public investment. Orbita's work "is valuable information that I hope will help the government better understand how tourism works," says Helga Cisneros, director of La Paz's departmental Chamber of Hotels. 

Compiling up-to-date data, another main focus for Orbita that is slated to continue until 2024, is essential for defining a visitor profile. "Tourism statistics are clearly not a priority for the government, which only produces figures on flows and means of transportation, which are unreliable," says Andres Aramayo, Orbita’s general manager. “These figures are based on border crossing points, but in many cases, they are inflated because these are crossing points for smuggling. One example of this is Desaguadero, which lies on the border with Peru.” Nevertheless, we know that in 2022, nearly 800,000 people visited the country, according to Luis Ampuero, director of Bolivia's Chamber of Hotels. However, that figure is well below pre-pandemic numbers. 

Beekeeper Demetrio Alavi in front of his stall
Andrea Fossati Durán/Sdsn Bolivia
Beekeeper Demetrio Alavi in front of his stall, where tourists can sample different types of honey.

That said, by studying traveller flow, consumption habits and where these travellers come from, the Orbita team can identify different forms of tourism. This led the team to focus its attention on the village of Luribay, three hours away from La Paz. In this small location, surrounded by lush vegetation and majestic rocky mountains, food, vineyards and orchards abound, mainly for local tourists (only 20% come from abroad). It's an ideal getaway from the capital, even though it's not very popular. It attracts around 800 people a year, with 600 opting for an all-inclusive package and spending the night, while the other 200 just come for a day trip. We stroll around the pretty central square and notice the lack of services: there’s barely one restaurant and a few sparsely stocked tiendas (Spanish for grocery stores). 

Yet there's plenty to enjoy: wine tastings, walks through the vast farmlands, beehive tours and learning about the effects of global warming with beekeeper Demetrio Alavi. The curious can then head to the nearby village of Catavi, to la bodega (the colonial house) of José Manuel Pando, a 19th-century soldier who fought in the War of the Pacific against Chile and went on to become president of Bolivia. The weapons and medicine boxes appear frozen in time in this somewhat dusty building that’s nearly in ruins. 

What can be done to promote this region and its heritage, and to attract more visitors? That’s the question the Orbita team is tackling, with a view to improve small-scale tourism to benefit the 200 local families, in keeping with the principles of community tourism. 

Woman walking on a bridge with mountains behind.
Reynaldo San Martín/ORBITA Project
This perilous bridge leads to the village of Catavi.

Research as education

The power of the university community has been harnessed to stimulate reflection. Orbita's partners include the Bolivian Private University (UPB) and the Bolivian Catholic University. 

In total, 25 master’s dissertations or theses are funded by the project, representing 14,000 bolivianos (around CA$2,700) each. These dissertations and theses are also published on specialized blogs and benefit from in-depth pedagogical support. 

The goal is twofold: to use the results to further Orbita’s and the SDSN’s research, and to encourage students to pursue careers in tourism. “Since the pandemic, very few students want to work in this sector," says Marco Antonio Abastoflor Portugal, director of careers for the Tourism Administration program at the Catholic University. “You could say it’s a crisis.” 

Profiles from all disciplines are selected through a competitive process. In the SDSN offices at UPB, 24-year-old economics undergraduate student Pia Piovesan studies the role of women as actors and consumers of Bolivian domestic tourism, while 23-year-old engineer Loreley Huanca focuses on the power of airlines on the flow of tourists. “I didn't know anything about tourism before this assignment," laughs Pia Piovesan. “But it's a cross-cutting sector that affects us all, with immense potential. There are so many different activities and types of tourism.” Sitting next to her, her colleague Loreley Huanca could see herself doing well in tourism. Both students are set to submit their work in December. 

According to Viviana Valda, from the Faculty of Economics at the Franz Tamayo Private University, another university with a signed agreement with Orbita, "We need to make the sector attractive to future generations, to train them as professionals, and I think it's important for universities to get involved.” 

Tailored support

As part of the project, the Orbita and SDSN teams are also providing a consulting service. They’re providing guidance to 33 community tourism businesses to develop demand-based tourism. For the moment, Orbita is working with two representatives: the La Cabaña Unión association in Luribay, at the foot of the Quimsa Cruz mountain range, and the Astucopecha tourism organization (which encompasses 31 communities) on the shores of Lake Titicaca. They were "selected using a needs assessment chart,” according to Martha Jemio, the Orbita coordinator heading this part of the project. 

Turning down a pretty, shady alleyway in Luribay, we arrive at the home of 42-year-old Omar Apaza Calle. This friendly family man, who runs the rustic 32-bed Cabaña Uníon inn and the surrounding vineyard, immediately suggests a wine milkshake for breakfast. “All our dishes are offered in consultation with local producers," he assures us. “Short supply chains only. We try to develop what we offer based on quality, gourmet standards and aesthetics, rather than quantity.” The menu boasts traditional local recipes, such as lambreado de cuy — guinea pig meat served during celebrations. 

While he works with several tour operators who provide him with a regular clientele, Omar Apaza Calle has enlisted Orbita's help to expand his online presence. Thanks to several free workshops organized throughout the year, he is gradually learning how to work social media and showcase his photographs. “It's essential to work with Orbita around promoting the site, and the whole project is positive, because it can generate significant income for all the families here," he says. When we visited, he was expecting 12 tourists for the weekend. 

He's not the only one who needs to make the digital shift. Over "40% of ABAVYT [association of Bolivian travel and tourism agencies]-affiliated agencies have closed since the start of the pandemic, dropping from 120 to 75. This is forcing us to move the sector in a digital direction. Many companies need to make the technological leap. There’s definitely a lack of public investment, but we have a lot to do to improve what we offer," explains Patricia Cespedes, director of ABAVYT, whom we met at Orbita's offices in the heart of La Paz. 

On the shores of Lake Titicaca, the "consulting" portion of Orbita is in its early stages. A three-hour drive from the emblematic town of Copacabana, which attracts most of the region's tourism traffic, the hamlet of Challapata doesn't enjoy the same popularity, despite the many excursions it offers. 

A woman wearing a hat sits on a beach
Reynaldo San Martín/ORBITA Project
Susibilica Apasa, head of tourism development in the Lake Titicaca region

We knock on the door of a modest seven-bed guest house, where we meet the local authority responsible for tourism development in the region, Susibilica Apasa. Dressed in the traditional garb of cholas (Bolivian women with a strong Indigenous cultural identification), a ruffled dress and bombin (bowler hat) covering her two long braids tied with a tullma (Quechua term for this particular hair tie), this jovial 48-year-old woman proudly lists the local attractions: archaeological sites, churches, lagoons, not to mention the wild island of Chiquipa, an hour's boat ride away, which offers a breathtaking view of the bay. “We'd like to stimulate cultural exchanges between visitors and locals," she says. 

As part of its consulting activities, Orbita emphasizes the value of offering tourism based on the promise of preserved landscapes that are still private. “Community leaders need help to understand the opportunity that tourism can represent," explains Andres Aramayo. 

The 7,186 inhabitants of Escoma, a small town near Challapata, are hoping for just one thing: that tourism will once again attract the local youth, who left for other parts of the country in search of jobs after the COVID-19 pandemic. “Young people could become guides, work in restaurants. But how do you get them to come back?” Susibilica Apasa asks. 

Structural challenges

A modest guest house
Andrea Fossati Durán/Sdsn Bolivia
The narrow streets of Luribay, home to modest guest houses.

Luis Ampuero, president of the Bolivian Chamber of Hotels, points out two structural problems. "There are at least two obstacles to tourism: the requirement for certain nationalities, such as Americans or Israelis, to obtain a visa to enter Bolivia, and poor connections between cities. There are no budget airlines.” Travelling within the country can be very expensive, or very time-consuming if you’re taking buses. 

Above all, "Bolivia's problem is that we don't see ourselves as a tourism country, even though that’s the sector that can have the greatest impact (on the population) as quickly as possible,” he continues. Orbita’s team is eager to remedy that situation. 

Its 15 employees are trying to make their model sustainable and implement it over the long term. “For the time being, Orbita doesn't exist as an institution in its own right, but we're thinking about making the project sustainable, beyond the two years planned by the IDRC," shares Julian Vargas of Fundación IES. 

Orbita is scheduled to present its findings to IDRC in March 2024. The teams have until May, when the project ends, to assess opportunities for further collaboration with community leaders and businesses. 

Like the spectacular scenery of the Salar de Uyuni salt flats, other places could also contribute to making the country a benchmark for environmentally friendly tourism. 

Some peaches from the lovely orchards of Luribay.
Andrea Fossati Durán/Sdsn Bolivia
Some peaches from the lovely orchards of Luribay.

According to the World Economic Forum's Travel & Tourism Development Index 2021, which measures all factors that promote sector development, Bolivia is ranked 91st out of 117 countries. Comparatively, neighbouring Peru ranks 65th and Chile ranks 34th. Even Colombia, which has just emerged from decades of conflict that ended with the signing of a peace agreement with FARC guerrillas in 2016, did better, ranking 58th. 

The program described in this article and production of this report were made possible by support from Canada’s International Development Research Centre. 

This article was originally published in the September 2023 issue of Québec Science.  

Top photo credit: Daniel Casatroja