Each time I walk around CotaCota, or anywhere in La Paz or even Uyuni for that matter, I notice that the eyes of the locals tend to “stick” on myself or my classmates for more time than they would if I were home in Oxford or Madison. I can completely understand why it is this way, but it always makes me wonder what exactly is going through the citizens’ heads. How do they feel about tourism? Do they appreciate it because of the influx of money, or do they disapprove as some tourists come into their culture often lacking a large degree of respect for customs and sentiments? For me, this question became even more magnified when our class visited the old mining town of San Cristobal as we finished our tour of the Salar de Uyuni. Granted, there is no doubt that many groups of tourists stop to “stretch their legs” in San Cristobal every day, but nonetheless it is safe to say that the citizens of the town are less exposed to non-stop tourism than those of cities like Uyuni, or of course La Paz, Santa Cruz, Cochabamba and the like.
Our “lead” tour guide for the weekend, Luis, was extremely respectful and positive toward us for the entirety of the weekend, which was understandable because his job is to give tourists such as myself the best experience possible. But more so than this obligation that he has to maintain positivity, one could tell by the way Luis spoke with locals and with his fellow guides that he truly sees tourism in a positive light; tourism did not seem to bother him in any way and he seemed to believe that the better aspects of tourism far outweigh the negative ones. When we exited our dusty SUVs, we took a short lap around the local market, then Luis directed us to walk toward a church that had been recently rebuilt based on the original, which was constructed around 200 years ago. as we approached the gates to the church a very old, weathered cholita stopped our group, asking that we not take any pictures of the church. She did not speak with anger, but with conviction nonetheless. Luis, our guide, tried to discuss with the woman that because it was for tourism she should be fine with us taking photos, but she was having nothing of it. This magnified case of the clash of opinions over tourism made me question it all even more. I began to consider just how respectful toward local beliefs myself and others like me should be. When visiting new places we must always understand that the locals are the ones with the true rights to the land, for it is (in some cases) where they have and will spend their entire lives, and for what they deem most important, we tourists should always maintain the utmost respect and consideration.