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Community Tourism in Peru: The Island of Taquile, Lake Titicaca

By Ross Mitchell
Reprinted by permission from Planeta.com (planeta.com )

Early one morning listening to the rain pattering on the roof of my guesthouse, I felt a sense of belonging.

Over several weeks, I had learned a few Quechua expressions, worn a chuspa (traditional coca leaf bag) and had even adjusted to the thin altiplano air and a largely vegetarian diet. During 1997, I collected research data on breathtaking Taquile Island in the southeastern corner of Peru. My main goal was to examine socio-economic aspects of a community distinguished by high levels of participation and management of the local tourism sector.

At 12,507 feet (3812 meters), Taquile is an emerald gem nestled on Lake Titicaca and surrounded by shifting shades of blue. It is a fascinating place where the community still comes before anything else and its collective organization seems to function in perfect harmony.

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It wasn't long before the shy Taquileños became accustomed to my presence and questions with characteristic sincerity. This is astonishing considering that only 20 years before outsiders were so rare that residents hid at the sight of strange faces.

Living on Taquile's 452 acres are 1,850 primarily Quechua-speaking people, who for countless generations have grown potatoes, barley and broad beans on pre-Columbian terraced slopes. During the 1960s, the poorest Taquileños eked out a living by fishing from reed boats on the deep waters of the lake, and many had to migrate to other parts of Peru to find temporary work.

The only way to reach the island was by wooden sailboat on a 12-hour journey from the departmental capital of Puno, about 15 miles away. But in 1976 when the South American Handbook described an out-of-the-way, unspoiled island (Taquile) on Lake Titicaca, life would never be the same again for the islanders.

Latin American countries such as Costa Rica, Belize, Ecuador and Peru have been promoting "sustainable" tourism since the mid-1980s to generate revenue and employment while striving to reduce or avoid negative impacts.

Peru has enormous opportunities in many "new" forms of tourism that include nature watching, archaeology, trekking and mountain climbing. Peru also possesses some of the most exciting heritage resources in the world, such as Machu Picchu, the Nazca Lines and the Tomb of Sipan.

Unique sites located relatively close to the "Gringo Trail" such as Taquile Island generate high demand from adventure-nature enthusiasts. From only a handful of tourists in the early 1970s, over 27,000 visitors came to Taquile in 1996 and at least 15% of them spent a night or two in a family guesthouse. Yet this is not entirely good news.

A Lake Titicaca houseboat.A Lake Titicaca houseboat.Today, the islanders are struggling to maintain their simple lifestyle and customs in the face of rapid globalization and modernity. In the early 1970s, tourism was not widely accepted as it is today.

But with the arrival of more and more strangers, initial reluctance changed to outright support when economic benefits from handicraft sales and lodging provision became apparent. Many people feel that several important figures, including ex-governor and expert weaver Francisco Huatta Huatta, Belgian priest Pepe Loits and U.S. Peace Corps worker Kevin Healy, gently persuaded the islanders of tourism's economic advantages.

It was made clear that equitable participation in the provision of services could be had without drastically changing traditional ways. Tourism on Taquile largely occurs during the May to November dry season.

The trip from Puno now takes about three to four hours in small motorized boats, and those arriving on Taquile's west side are faced with a daunting climb of several hundred steps. Children run behind tourists and offer muña, an aromatic plant that may help alleviate shortness of breath.

At the top, a reception committee greets and arranges accommodation, if desired, with a family in an adobe hut. For the unprepared visitor planning to spend a night or two, rather rustic conditions may come as a surprise.

Nights are often very cold and restaurant fare is generally limited to locally produced potatoes and trout, as well as pancakes and imported rice. Many tourists are attracted to Taquile for its elaborate and sophisticated textiles.

During the 1980s, local weavers formed two community-run artisan stores, the Manco Capac Cooperative, to sell their diverse and increasingly numerous products.

Most men, women and children over the age of seven now earn money by producing handicrafts. Prices are fixed to avoid harmful competition with a small percentage retained for cooperative maintenance. With the exception of a few vests, chullus (traditional knitted male headgear) and belts, which can be bought in Puno or in some shops in Lima, Taquileño textiles can only be purchased on the island.

In many ways, the Taquileños significantly control the type, intensity and direction of tourism on their island. Tourism has created a small economy, and the traditional dependence on subsistence agriculture and the need to obtain employment elsewhere has shifted. In 1996, most adult residents (98%) were employed on a casual or part-time basis in a tourism-related activity. Restaurants are locally owned and operated by groups of families.

Almost everyone receives some remuneration from occasional handicraft sales or provision of lodging. Revenues earned go to purchase housing materials or foodstuffs such as dried noodles and cooking oil.

Cooperative boat ownership also subsidizes the cost of transport for Taquileños who travel to and from Puno. Still, there are some dark clouds on the horizon. The dependence on tourism as a major source of income has widened the gap between families. Tourism preferences have changed and most now stay close to the main plaza where restaurants and other services are located.

It appears that the distribution of shared benefits has shifted to an increasingly individualistic, free market approach. One frequent visitor told me that "with more solidarity, spirituality and sense of community, there used to be more concern for each other". Synthetic materials are gradually replacing sheep and alpaca wool in their crafts, and simpler patterns and techniques mean quicker sales.

Litter has increased as tourists purchase pop and other non-local food items. One change of concern to tourists and even certain local residents has been the replacement of traditional straw thatching with corrugated tin roofs. Yet there is cautious optimism among the islanders and a widespread acceptance that tourism is good for the local economy, as well as allowing them to maintain their livelihood.

Taquile is one of those few magical places that can still be experienced by those who desire a glimpse of a traditional Andean community. But as increasingly greater numbers of visitors arrive, this fragile island ecosystem and its unique culture are correspondingly threatened.

Local residents may want more tourism but not at the expense of their traditional customs and environment, so much an integral part of their identity. It should really be up to the Taquileños to decide for themselves what type and degree of change is acceptable.

I have been fortunate enough to sit amidst the pre-Columbian ruins on the island on a clear night as a full moon shimmered over Lake Titicaca, surrounded by the snow-capped Andes. I have also witnessed their wonderful traditional songs and dances during festivals that pay tribute to pacha mama, the Mother Earth.

Such opportunities should not be taken for granted since only one Taquile Island exists in this world. We should encourage any efforts taken to preserve forever this marvelous place.

Ross Mitchell is a Ph.D. student in Rural Economy at the University of Alberta. He holds a B.Sc. in Forestry (University of Alberta) and a M.Sc. in Rural Planning and Development (University of Guelph). He may be reached by email at ross.mitchell@ualberta.ca

FOR MORE INFORMATION

For more information on Taquile Island and community-based tourism, please refer to the following publications: Mitchell, R.E. (1998) Community integration in ecotourism: a comparative case study of two communities in Peru. MSc thesis, University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario.

Mitchell, R.E. and Reid, D.G. (2001) Community integration: island tourism in Peru. Annals of Tourism Research, 28(1), 113-139.

FOR MORE INFORMATION ON SOUTH AMERICA AT PLANETA.COM


For more information on sustainable, responsible and eco tourism in Latin America, please visit planeta.com, the internet’s most complete resource on ecotourism in Latin America.

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