Tourism’s saving grace
An over-loud Bob Dylan was interfering with my food. I peered over my trilingual menu of pasta, pizzas, muesli and pancakes to look at all the other gringo diners, almost uniformly in cargo pants, travel agency T-shirts and ethnic stripey hats.
We were in Rurrenabaque, right on the edge of the vast expansive Bolivian Amazon, but apart from the waiter in his baseball cap there wasn’t a Bolivian to be seen.
In fact the café was an almost exact replica of ones I have been to in Bangkok, Copenhagen, Marrakesh, Dar-es-Salaam and Agra. Supposedly travelling is about new experiences, but the popularity of this restaurant suggested that we all just want the same thing. If globalisation is about making the world uniform, tourism would seem to be its vanguard.
Typically, independent travellers sneer at package-toured tourists as people who in their boxed-in coaches and snapshot-quick photo-stops fail to see the "real" country. Yet travellers don’t take long to form themselves into their own mini-hordes. In Rurrenabaque there seemed to be a herd of about 50 Israelis that moved around together en-masse.
The talk may be about "amazing new experiences" but you can guarantee it is recounted to other gringos all hanging out in cafés that look like ones back home rather than the earthy slightly grubby one next to the bus stop.
It hasn’t taken me long in Bolivia to put myself one-up on travellers by looking down on them and telling my bemused Bolivian friends that we shouldn’t go there as there are far too many gringos. But aren’t you a gringo, they quite fairly point out. I end up feeling like a hypocrite, uncomfortable with tourism’s impact yet unmistakeably being one of them drawn like everyone to the promises of new sights and experiences.
So I was surprised as we drifted down a lacksadaisical peat-black river in the Bolivian savannah to hear our softly-spoken but passionate guide Marcial say: "Tourism helped save our environment."
Switching off the boat motor, he recounted when he first became a guide shortly after 18,900 square kilometres of his region was turned into the National Madidi Park in 1995. "But when I showed the first tourists the park they asked where are the animals? I realised they weren’t there because we had hunted them to extinction. My experience of showing tourists made me become aware of the the importance of our environment."
Eleven years later, Parque Madidi has become one of the most famous national parks in the world. It spans a wide range of altitudes and early studies have shown that it is one of the most bio-diverse regions in the entire world.
"It took some time to persuade the communities here to turn it into a park because we thought they were taking away our right to feed ourselves," Marcial said. "But communities now are much more in favour because tourism has brought new money."
Marcial started the engine, just as a loud puff of air marked the presence of a pink river dolphin breaking the river surface. Marcial smiled: "I used not to think about it, but the experience of showing tourists the region made me realise the importance of protecting nature. It changed my mind."
Tourists have risen from a few hundred in 1995 to several thousand yearly. I could see why just from the amazing flight that we made to Rurrenabaque. In a tiny 20-seater plane we precociously took off into the ocean blue Andean sky passing over the grid-like streets of barren-brown El Alto, passing underneath shimmering white peaks that looked deceptively climbable.
As we passed the Cordillera mountain range that stretched to the horizon, the stony mountains that fell away from the peaks burst into green life extending their ridges like long witches’ fingers into dense clouds. After 30 minutes, we descended through the clouds to a new sea, this time of green, broken only by snaking brown rivers. Landing in warm sunshine on a grassy runway, we transferred to a minibus that bounced along dust-red roads into Rurrenabaque.
The cosmopolitan capital of La Paz couldn’t have felt further away, but all the streets in this small jungle town of 18,000 were full of travel agencies selling their wares, an American fundamentalist Christian selling cinammon rolls and Bolivians fluent in English. Everyone seemed to be offering the same tour so I had worries of having to join the tourist herd, but the next day after a 3 hour dusty jeep-ride there were only six of us meandering down the river to the gentle hum of the boat’s motor interrupted only by the flutter and whirl of colours as tropical birds took off from overhanging trees and bushes.
The river marked a narrow fertile dark-green wavy line in the flat open and more dusty green pampas, but was rich with an unbelievable variety of birds and animals including nonchalant capybaras and wary caimans. At night the open pampas proved a perfect backdrop to watch the setting sun paint its canvas-sky with every possible tone of pink and red.
Over three days, our guide Marcial unravelled his immense knowledge of the wildlife and forests, teaching us about medicinal plants, sketching out geological maps in the dirt soil, and pointing to birds in a battered thumbed bird guide.
Marcial, who grew up in a Quechua-Tacana community right in the middle of the park, recounted how he had learnt many things from his father but even more from his experience as a guide. He explained that whilst indigenous people had lived sustainably with nature for many centuries, this changed with the arrival of the spanish who brought guns and ideas of exploitation with limits. Tourism and strangely the power of the traveller’s dollar had led to communities looking after their environments again, although Marcial said a huge amount of consciousness-building was still needed to make this lasting.
His seemingly-offhand comment about the existence of oilfields below Madidi park (a clearly more powerful draw than the tourist dollar) pointed to the ongoing fragility of this unique biosphere.
I came away intrigued and humbled – more than anything by the richness of Bolivia’s environment. But unexpectedly I also came away with a slightly different view of tourism. It was tough as I sat in a queue for the return home with huge numbers of loud tourists forcing me to listen to their MP3 hits blasted through tinny speakers, but I did my best to tell myself that these annoying tourists may in fact be unsuspecting saviours of Bolivia’s forests.
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