By Jennifer Brookland

The average U.S. vacation is fewer than five days, and destinations from far-flung Shangri-Las to hometown “staycation” spots all jockey for tourists’ time, and money. The competition is tough for off-the-beaten-path locations like the Guatemalan highland towns around Lake Atitlán.

Though tourists swarm Central America’s deepest volcanic lake some three hours from the capital,- hippies flocked to Atitlán in the sixties and its largest town is almost entirely dependent on tourism today,- the indigenous Maya communities a little farther aground struggle to attract the visitors needed to support their local economies.

In these communities, where women still sew the traditional huipil shirts and families plant and harvest corn by hand, the natural beauty of the lakes and volcanoes and the chance to experience Maya culture was not enough of an advantage in the face of so much competition.

“There was a lot of tourism activity going on in the region but everyone was just working by themselves,” says Counterpart International’s Guatemala country director, Rony Mejia. “People had the same needs, people had the same interests but they were not talking to each other,” he said.

Tourist services at every level had to be coordinated, and improved.

And it had to start with the boats.

Anyone coming from the tourist hub of Panajachel who wanted to avoid a bumpy drive around the 125 square kilometer lake looked instead to the bevy of small boats offering rides across it. But what they saw was unappealing. No prices were posted, the operators were indistinguishable from anyone else milling around the shore, and to the dismay of safety-conscious tourists, there wasn’t a life jacket in sight.

A Wikitravel website called the boat crews, who had no formal training and few reasons to avoid combative haggling over the price, “a bunch of really unpleasant scoundrels.”

Clearly customer service was not a concept the boat operators were concerned with. But as the only way for tourists to access activities in the towns around the Lake Atitlán, Counterpart International knew they were the first stop in creating a value chain that could send tourist dollars reverberating throughout the communities.

Crossing the first obstacle

“Promoting development in rural communities that have been affected by civil war, by low rates of nutrition and low levels of education is not an easy task,” says Mejia, referring to the 30years of conflict that ended in the early 1990s. “But we decided to undertake this challenge knowing there was a lot to be made but knowing the results would be really rich.”

With funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development, Counterpart launched a Community Tourism Alliance project, and set up training for the 35 men in the Association of Boaters to improve their service. The workshop taught the crews how to standardize their prices, man their vessels during set operating hours, and communicate with tourists during the trip.

“It was very important for me because I learned a lot of things about organization, punctuality, respect and how to treat people,” says Domingo Cortez, President of the Association of Boat Operators. “Right now, the people are changing their service and all the time we are seeing more customers coming along. The customer service workshop has been a great support and has brought more unity.”

Boat operators also got uniforms to distinguish themselves and present a professional image to visitors, as well as learning to promote their services through television, radio and print advertisements. The growing number of tourists now enables the boaters to work year-round.

Learning to add value

Once visitors safely and dryly reach the shore of Lake Atitlán and continue into the neighboring communities, the travel agents, hotels, brokers offering horseback excursions, restaurants and Spanish-language schools all benefit from their presence.

Counterpart identified these language schools in particular as the key service provided within the value chain for parts of the Lake Atitlán region. Students, typically foreigners who stay in the community for up to several months, use many services the regular tourists don’t, such as laundromats and grocery stores.

“They participate in cultural activities. They get to know the community. Many of them then return as volunteers or generate projects to provide support scholarships for the health of kids in the communities. So those Spanish schools are really an important way of contributing to benefits to the community,” says Mejia.

Students come to one of the largest schools, the San Pedro Spanish School, in part to immerse themselves in the rhythms and culture of Guatemalan life by staying with a host family. The promise of a comfortable and welcoming homestay makes students more likely to pay locals directly to put them up, instead of spending their money on a room at the school or even a vacation rental on the lake.

Florinda Gonzalez’s job at San Pedro is to welcome foreign students, bring them to their host families’ homes and familiarize them with their new surroundings.

Last year, after a two-day workshop run by Counterpart’s partner, Guatemala’s Technical Institute INTECAP, Florinda Gonzalez and her colleagues were convinced that the set-up could use an upgrade. Host families needed training on how to welcome and receive the students, how to decorate their rooms and prepare food for them.

“Yes, we know how to look after them but we want to know more, in order to give them a quality service,” Florinda Gonzalez says.

Several training sessions later, she feels more prepared to handle students of all types.

“A little while ago, there were two students here. One was 75 and the other was 80 years old,” Florinda Gonzalez recalls. “For both of them, it was a dream of theirs to come and study Spanish here. And we shared some great experiences with them. We went out with them on bikes in the street, to visit the lake, to see the surroundings.”

Florinda Gonzalez said the two were excited to be in San Pedro, and very happy with the school and their host families. One stayed for six weeks. The other, two months.

“What the families receive from this is they can improve their lives, their styles of life,” says Ramon Penelao, director of the San Pedro Spanish School. “Also they have more resources and this guarantees their income and helps them a lot.”

The benefit of satisfied students extends beyond the host families — into the local restaurants, nearby attractions, and neighborhood farmers’ stands and shops.

Into the Gardens of the Maya

It was Lake Atitlán’s 30 or so tour operators and transport companies that perhaps stood to gain the most from increased tourism to the area. When Counterpart took stock of their operations, however, it was clear they were competing with each other to sell the same products.

At Counterpart’s suggestion, the businesses joined forces to become points of sale for consistently-priced tour packages. Now, one tour operator specializes in mountain bike tours, another on kayak rides and another on volcano tours.

“That allowed not only for the competition, which was getting ugly, to stop but also for them to realize what their uniqueness was,” explains Mejia.

It’s a realization that communities across the “Mundo Maya” are coming to. Guatemala is a land of natural beauty and diversity, with two oceans, high mountains and rainforests. The people belong to 22 different ethnic groups that speak different languages. In a country where the ancient Maya civilization dominated for half a millennium and left behind distinct architecture, crafts and character, modern-day Guatemalans are in a prime position to capitalize on these distinct offerings.

And as more and more tourists pour in to experience that special heritage, locals must be supported in maintaining it.

At the Maya Traditions Foundation, Flor Gonzalez coordinates a health program that works with 10 communities to help them recover their culture by using traditional medicinal plants.

For 20 years, they’ve kept a garden with more than 50 species of medicinal, edible and ornamental plants culled from surrounding areas.

“They (the locals) are fascinated by the return of their use because they remembering the traditions of their grandparents, which they can now pass on to their children,” says Flor Gonzalez.

Counterpart worked with the foundation to promote the garden by producing a brochure about the medicinal plants it contains and the tours offered to learn about them.

The local economy benefits when residents learn how to plant their own gardens of medicinal plants. Families can now save money on chemical medicines and instead consume or sell cough mixtures, ointments, and teas that they’ve grown themselves. ‘Tomio’ or ‘toronjil,’ for example, should work just as well for coughs and respiratory problems, says Flor Gonzalez.

“That is the rich alternative that we want to offer,” she says.

The foundation garden currently distributes in four shops in Panajachel, including a café where tourists can buy organic teas cultivated by indigenous communities in their home plots. The group hopes to promote its activities at the national level by creating promotional materials that will let people know about the efforts to preserve traditional culture, and share it with the world.

In each of these small highland towns, the people are starting to see the results of improving their tourist services at each level. They hope they can better their own lives by inviting more people from across the globe into them. With each improvement, they hope they can lure tourists off the paved roads of Guatemala City, Antigua and Panajachel, and into the gardens of the Maya.

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