Despite many linkages in Guatemala that are related to a shared economy, transportation structure and national culture, a number of divisions remain. The deepest divisions occur between rural and urban residents and between indigenous and non-indigenous inhabitants, qualities that oftentimes correspond with each other. In many ways, to be urban is to be ladino; whereas, to be indigenous is to be rural. The historical context in which these divisions developed is essential in understanding how to strengthen linkages moving forward. Issues related to culture, economic equality and mobility are problematized within the context of domestic tourism.
Culture is particularly vulnerable to exploitation through tourism. Fanon (1967) theorized about the psychology of the oppressed in formerly colonized areas. Regarding perceptions held by the oppressed, he wrote, ‘The cause is effect: you are rich because you are white, you are white because you are rich’ (p. 34). Domestic tourism in Guatemala, as it currently stands, has the potential to reinforce long-standing social hierarchies and undermine efforts towards equality. In some ways, domestic tourism can intensify the contrast between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ (or at least those who have very little by comparison). Domestic tourists arrive in their personal automobiles, sporting the latest smartphone and wearing designer clothes. They stay in hotels and eat at restaurants aimed at tourists. The contrasts can be stark.
The distinctions between Mayas and non-Mayas in Guatemala are not only constructed by ladinos, however. Adams (2005) explains that native Mayas claim separate cultural identities from ladinos. He also suggests that ladinos lack cohesion other than that they identify as non-Maya. This dichotomy is complicated by the fact that these boundaries are shifting. For example, it is possible to become ladino, even if one is born Maya, simply by becoming more urban and casting off Maya cultural markers (Shea, 2001). Adams does suggest that ladinos could unify around a national identity, an identity which does not necessarily require the exclusion of Maya groups. Unfortunately, this remains difficult in the current climate, where scars of the civil war endure. Many of the divisions that deepened during that time remain entrenched.
In the literature, international tourism is more often treated as a force of destruction, whereas domestic tourism is seen as a benign transaction. Nevertheless, in Guatemala foreign tourists have actually done much to raise the status of indigenous Maya. Rather than a loss of Maya identity, tourism offers the potential to elevate the Maya culture to a position of respect. It is critical, however, that this position be integrated into domestic tourism as well. Both Maya and non-Maya residents must see each other’s value in order for a collaborative relationship to emerge. While it will take much time for inequality in Guatemala to diminish, some initial steps can be taken to reverse discriminatory behaviour by tourism promoters. First, real images of Guatemalans who live in a tourist destination can be used (e.g. in both modern and traditional dress). By using only idealized images, tourism marketers are maintaining the perception of backwardness. Additionally, images of Maya individuals as tourists should be included. Though indigenous Guatemalans are disproportionately impacted by poverty, many do belong to the middle class and are able to travel for leisure.
Excluding images of them as tourists perpetuates a variety of stereotypes. Furthermore, tourism packages should be offered for rural residents to visit urban areas, eliminating the assumption that domestic tourism is unidirectional. International and domestic tourism organisations are uniquely positioned to strengthen linkages between urban and rural as well as indigenous and non-indigenous residents of Guatemala, while minimizing long-standing divisions between the groups.
Even with structural challenges, domestic tourism does have the opportunity to redistribute some of the wealth from affluent Guatemalans to poorer Guatemalans. One way to do this is through entry into the tourism industry by indigenous Maya. This will remain difficult, however, if ladinos and foreigners continue to control much of the tourism infrastructure. One possible avenue to achieve this is through Spanish language acquisition. In spite of a history of ethnic discrimination, some research in Guatemala has found that the ability to speak the Spanish language is more significant in terms of wage inequality than whether a person is indigenous (Bruni et al., 2009). While there are dozens of Mayan languages spoken in Guatemala, the language of education and commerce is Spanish. For most Mayan speakers, Spanish must be learned as a second language. This is especially relevant to tourism, as my research has found that indigenous residents see tourism as an opportunity to improve their understanding and speaking of the Spanish language (LaPan et al., 2016). For older residents who have had limited schooling, this may well be their only opportunity to acquire the official language of the country and the unofficial language of social mobility. My informants also perceived tourism as an opportunity to learn additional languages, including English. Even the most remote villages in Guatemala that are popular among tourists have some residents who speak English. Tourism interactions, both with domestic and foreign tourists, can provide Maya residents with the opportunity to acquire language skills that give them entry into a variety of jobs and economic sectors.
Haddad et al. (2013) found that domestic tourism was an efficient means of redistributing income between wealthy regions and poor regions in Brazil and can even contribute to reducing inequality. With greater economic integration of businesses that provide services to domestic tourists, the results could be promising. Additionally, these businesses could also serve international tourists, multiplying the impact. Haddad and colleagues suggest that tourism can accomplish this wealth redistribution with less distortion of the market than government interventions. If greater integration can occur among cultural groups and within transportation systems, there will be fewer barriers to creating these economic linkages.
Nonetheless, indigeneity and culture cannot be separated from problems with inequality in Guatemala. Inequality affects issues of social justice in the areas of physical and economic mobility. Better (e.g. safer, more accessible) transportation networks would go a long way in providing rural residents with access to the amenities available to urban residents. Automobile restrictions for visitors to historic areas would permit safer foot travel and reduce damage to historic sites. Safe, clean, affordable public transportation would alleviate a number of stressors for residents and foreign and domestic tourists. The ability of the Guatemalan government to provide a clear national strategy in this regard remains questionable. Nonetheless, a number of accommodations have been made to enhance the appeal of Guatemala for foreign travellers and pressure from international tourists may result in action.
Urban-rural divisions will be difficult to rectify if residents of urban areas maintain positions of privilege in the eyes of Guatemalans. Though Roberts (2010) found that relatively few Maya had migrated to Guatemala City, this is likely underreported, as many individuals begin to be identified as ladino as a result of their urban residence (despite belonging to a particular indigenous cultural group). A 2010 study among Guatemalan college students showed that a full 50% of respondents identified as neither indigenous nor ladino, but rather a mixture of both (Gibbons and Ashdown, 2010). This indicates that ethnic boundaries among young people may be becoming more fluid, perhaps as a result of increased co-integration among the groups in educational settings. Therefore, as young Maya look to shake off their indigenous heritage in an effort to become more ladino (or vice versa), it may increase linkages between the two groups, but it may also create new challenges. For example, if this trend continues, it will have important implications for cultural tourism in Guatemala. Foreign tourists may perceive the erosion of Maya culture as disagreeable and fewer visitors may come in search of an ancient culture.