Tourism in Guatemala: Strangers and Neighbours

Travel to Latin America has occurred for centuries (Bowman, 2013). The region was initially frequented by backpackers and adventurers in search of remote and authentic experiences (Baud and Ypeij, 2009). By comparison to other countries in the region, international tourism in Guatemala has developed rather slowly. Rapid tourism expansion in Guatemala has been hindered by the 30-year civil war that ended in 1996. While tourism grew steadily until the global recession of 2008 (Williams, 2011), international arrivals dropped off during the years following the economic collapse. The industry has begun to recover, but arrivals remain unsteady (Instituto Guatemalteco de Turismo-INGUAT, 2014). Although Guatemala has an abundance of natural and cultural resources, it suffers from issues with crime and violence. The US Department of State (2015, para. 1) writes, ‘Guatemala is a developing country characterized by wide income disparities. Violent crime is a serious concern due to endemic poverty, an abundance of weapons, a legacy of societal violence, and weak law enforcement and judicial systems’. Due to this perception, Guatemala has encountered challenges with attracting foreign tourists as successfully as some of its neighbours (notably Costa Rica). While challenges do exist, Guatemala remains visited by international tourists, with approximately 1.5 million international tourist arrivals in 2014 (World Bank, 2016a).

Despite fluctuations in international tourist arrivals, domestic tourism has been growing at a rapid rate in Latin America in the past decade (Baud and Ypeij, 2009; Ruggles-Brise, 2012). Domestic travel is one of the oldest forms of tourism and constitutes nearly three-quarters of overnight visits (Pierret, 2011). Spending by domestic travellers in Latin America has increased 15% since 2006, accounting for 85% of all regional tourism spending (Ruggles-Brise, 2012). This is more than three times the global average. This has been partly state-driven, but has also been fuelled by ‘an increasingly affluent middle class and a growing awareness of, and admiration for, the indigenous past among national politicians and populations’ (Baud and Ypeij, 2009, p. 1). Even with these regional trends, there is little reliable data with regard to domestic tourism in Guatemala. Domestic travel is especially difficult to track, as travellers do not have to cross borders, apply for visas or engage in other requirements that generate a paper trail (Ghimire, 2001). Guatemalan statistics from 2014, however, indicate that nearly 1.3 million domestic travellers visited sites within the country that year (INGUAT, 2015a), rivalling international tourist arrivals. With an overall population of 16 million (World Bank, 2016b), this amounts to approximately 12% of the population travelling domestically, quite likely an under-representation due to poor record keeping.

Though international and domestic tourism occur concurrently in Guatemala, there are differences in style and scope between these two subsets of the industry. Like other Latin American countries (de Oliveira Santos, 2015), national and religious holidays play a large part in Guatemalan vacationing and travel, especially for in-country trips. While the high and low tourist seasons in Guatemala are partially influenced by local weather (i.e. wet and dry seasons), they are also impacted by the North American and European holiday calendars. This creates periods of lull, when few foreign travellers visit. Domestic travellers, on the other hand, often travel around national and religious holidays, which occur throughout the year and can help to fill some of the dips in international tourism. Some destinations tend to be favoured by international tourists (e.g. Semuc Champey and Tikal), whereas others are popular among domestic tourists (e.g. Xela and Monterrico). Other areas (e.g. Antigua and Lake Atitlan) are regularly visited by both international and domestic tourists.

Several systematic attempts have been made by the Guatemalan government to promote domestic tourism. This includes a campaign titled ‘go on vacation without leaving your country’, which was in place from 1996 to 2014. A new initiative, ‘Paseo Guatemala’ was launched in 2014 and showcases a number of travel packages aimed at domestic travellers. These travel packages include both self-guided itineraries and bundled tour packages (INGUAT, 2015b). The tour packages are offered primarily from August to December, which coincides with the dry season in Guatemala, and last from 1-3 days. Most trips feature national monuments and historic sites. While the government is promoting these regions to domestic tourists, the country lacks a cohesive management plan to deal with large influxes of individuals in these predominantly rural destinations. Though it may seem straightforward to develop a domestic tourism product for Guatemalans, the country lacks integration between urban and rural areas, and suffers from issues of economic inequality and cultural divisiveness. Therefore, domestic tourism development should be approached with caution.

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