There is a lot written on how tourism can be either a positive and negative for local communities. I try to take a more nuanced approach. There are winners and losers, and I want to see how different people and groups experience tourism and why.
Tiwanaku, Bolivia, is not what most people would see as a typical tourist attraction. No Internet cafes or quaint bed and breakfasts line the streets. While a few restaurants serve visitors at lunchtime, almost nothing caters to them in the evening. Even so, tourism shapes the local community.
Tiwanaku is a pre-Incan archeological site in the highlands of Bolivia. Situated at 13,000 feet above sea level, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is known for its carved stone monoliths, large pyramids and ceremonial urban architecture. But the site is central to contemporary Bolivian politics as well.
"The archeological site continues to have political salience because it is viewed as the ancestral heritage of the modern Aymara inhabitants of the region," says Assistant Professor of Anthropology Clare Sammells.
Today, both foreign and Bolivians visitors come to Tiwanaku to learn about its archaeology, to seek spiritual experiences, and in the case of many urban Bolivian visitors, to reconnect with and publically express their Aymara roots.
Sammells studies the interactions between tourism and the local Aymara community that lives next to the site.
"Tourism is a form of capitalism, and that is what interests me: how do people actively confront these kinds of global flows and try to turn them to their advantage?" she says. "There is a lot written on how tourism can be either a positive and negative for local communities. I try to take a more nuanced approach. There are winners and losers, and I want to see how different people and groups experience tourism and why."
The balance of winners and losers at Tiwanaku changed in the 1990s when the road from the capital city of La Paz was paved. What was once a five-hour trip by bus was reduced to only two hours. As result, Tiwanaku received more visitors, but almost none of them spent the night. This meant far less tourist money was spent in Tiwanaku on housing, meals, or souvenirs. Tiwanaku's dairy farmers benefited from increased access to markets in La Paz, but many local hotel owners closed their doors.
One of the events that Sammells researches is the annual winter solstice ceremony in June. The event emerged around 1980, paralleling increasingly vocal indigenous political movements throughout Bolivia. Participants in the solstice - many of them university students from the nearby cities of La Paz or El Alto - come to Tiwanaku to observe the sunrise from within Tiwanaku's ceremonial center.
"It is a religious event, but it is also very much a political event. It creates a sense of Aymara identity and presents that as a political voice that must be reckoned with to a larger national audience," Sammells says.
Sammells brings lessons from her research to her teaching, inviting her students to consider the many sides of history in their own travels. "In most touristic sites there is a historical component. There is always an agenda to present history in particular ways," she says. "That doesn't make such narratives untrue, but one should always interpret such histories critically."
Posted Sept. 22, 2009
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