Millions of people are employed in the tourism industry (studies show it’s one in 11 worldwide), and at all levels of skills and incomes. It’s not only airline pilots, ship captains, and large hoteliers, but also tour escorts, local guides, and drivers, and small bed and breakfast owners. It goes beyond that to restaurants and the farmers who provide for them, and souvenir shops and the artisans who create the goods. In these smaller businesses, the impact is even greater.
By mid-March of 2020, we realized we had to cancel our annual Holy Week tour to Guatemala due to COVID-19. The celebrations that take place during Lent play a huge role in the economy there, and everyone in the country was in preparation mode when the virus struck. Tourism accounts for almost 80% of Antigua’s economy.
I often refer to Antigua as the ‘boutique hotel capital of the world’. At that time of year, most of the rooms would have been reserved well in advance. Lodging is mostly small properties with from 5 to 50 rooms.
This was the 7th year JB Journeys was to run the tour, and we were full with 11 people. In a one-week tour, we split our time between Antigua and Lake Atitlan. At Hotel los Pasos in Antigua, we would have had 30 room nights, 55 breakfasts, and probably other individual meals and drinks during our stay. On the lake at Jenna’s River B&B, we had planned 12 room nights, 22 breakfasts, 22 dinners, and additional drinks at the sunset bar. On top of that there would have been gratuities to servers, bellmen, bartenders, housekeepers, and miscellaneous staff.
Our drivers, local guides, and hotel staff have become friends. Many of them have been working with our groups since we began our tours and it makes the work much easier for me, the tour operator. I check to see if I can bring anything from the states for them.
We visit a coffee co-op outside Antigua, meet one of the farmers, and learn the process and history of coffee production in the region. Then we have lunch with the farmer’s family. That’s another 11 meals. The group buys lots of coffee, at least 30 bags. The farmers proudly tell us that with the extra money they earn by hosting travelers, they’ve been able to purchase a new piece of equipment or cement additional space to dry coffee beans and expand their production.
At a local restaurant, we take a cooking class, learning to make traditional dishes. Often the chef is not an English speaker, so we also hire a translator, and there is also kitchen staff. Ingredients come from the local market where farmers arrive each morning with produce, meats, and spices. When we finish the class, we sit down for another 11 meals.
I’m a big fan of the beautiful textiles you find in Guatemala. My home has bedspreads and pillows from Guatemala and I often wear a huipil, the colorful blouse almost all Maya women wear daily. Weaving is traditionally women’s work and there are numerous cooperatives keeping the craft alive in the village of San Juan la Laguna on Lake Atitlan.
For the last few years we have visited Cooperativa Quetzalli, a group of 11 women who tell us the value brought by our group – the opportunity to contribute to the family budget and to keep traditions alive and pass them on to new generations. Cristina is the current president of the co-op, she is holding a baby. Her grandmother demonstrates crushing dried flowers to get the right dye color and how to spin thread from a ball of raw cotton. Most of the items for sale in their shop – shawls, scarves, aprons, tablecloths, or runners – have a price and a weaver’s name on the tag, so you know who created each piece. It’s very personal. Following the demo and lots of shopping, we walked to the home of Cristina’s mother to have a simple meal with her family. Another 11 meals.
To borrow from Margaret Mead, never doubt that a small group of like-minded travelers can make a difference in the world.