A new kind of tourism in Panama

Posted: 19 February 2002

The Kuna indigenous people of Panama with a long tradition of self-rule, are developing their own vision of nature and cultural tourism. Many Kuna are determined to develop tourism in a way that won't alter their customs or their environment. And the Foundation for the Promotion of Indigenous Knowledge, a Kuna non-profit group, is trying to help interested communities plan to manage this potentially profitable enterprise.

The Kuna Yala Comarca territory is a band of rainforest that extends for 125 miles along the Caribbean coast nearly to the border of Colombia and encompasses the San Blas Islands, some 365 tiny keys with white-sand beaches lapped by crystalline waters. For travelers interested in tropical nature, the seaside, and indigenous cultures, the Kuna Yala is an ideal destination.

The Kuna population of about 40,000 lives on some 40 of the islands, plus 12 mainland villages along the coast. Most make their livings from farming and fishing, but they also have decades of experience with tourism, not all of it good. Since the 1960s, travelers have taken the 30-minute flight from Panama City to Porvenir, where there were a few small hotels, but nearly all were run by foreigners with Kuna employees.

By the end of the 1980s, the foreign-run businesses were gone, having received the Kuna's not-so-subtle message - sometimes delivered with violence - that they were not welcome. Even the Panamanian Tourism Institute, which in the mid-1970s tried to build a multi-million-dollar hotel complex in the Comarca mainland town of Cartí, had to abandon its development plans. More recently, foreigners tried to build ecological hotels on two different uninhabited San Blas islands, but their efforts failed as well.

Today, the General Kuna Congress grants permits to build hotels in the Comarca only to Kunas. According to Enrique Inatoy, director of the Foundation for the Promotion of Indigenous Knowledge, 12 small hotels exist, with just four or five bedrooms each. But since the Kuna have no access to bank loans or support from the government, growth is slow.

Where tourism has grown in the Kuna Yala, he feels the results often have been less than desirable. Yachts and cruise boats dock at Porvenir, and visitors crowd beaches to buy crafts from the Kuna, particularly the women, who still dress in the traditional, colorful hand-sewn blouses, called "molas," and wear gold nose rings and bracelets of beads around their arms and legs.

Vibrant molas are world famous. But according to Inatoy, "Creating molas is an art that began with designs that reflected the Kuna's conception of the world, of nature, and of our spiritual life. Now that tourism has transformed it into a commercial trade, the art is losing its spiritual value and quality. Designs of the molas are changing according to the interests of the tourists and at the same time, women are losing their knowledge of the old designs and their meanings." He also worries about the young people, who no longer are interested in farming but "only wait for the tourists in order to sell some crafts or animals they trap in the forest, in order to earn a few dollars."

Claudia Quinteros, a technical assistant with the US funded Regional Environmental Program for Central America/Protected Areas System (PROARCA/CAPAS), agrees that tourism in Porvenir is not really contributing much to the Kuna, since cruise ship passengers don't buy anything more than inexpensive crafts. "There is so much competition that women sell their molas to tourists for just $3, which is placing no value on the effort and time invested in their creation," she says. "It's scandalous."

Now, with donations from PROARCA/CAPAS, the Foundation has begun to develop tourism according to the Kuna vision, beginning with an analysis of Comarca's ecotourism and cultural tourism resources.

The project's second phase has involved designing a strategic ecotourism plan, pilot plans for the three interested communities, and solid-waste management plans. Three young Kuna also received training in how to be ecotourism guides. Inatoy explains that the strategic plan "will be administered, operated, promoted, and marketed by the Kuna, and our organization can do consulting work with any interested communities."

Inatoy is quite clear about how cultural tourism in the Comarca should not be developed. "Indigenous communities cannot be part of a tourism attraction, like an object for sightseeing," he says. While the Kuna culture can be shared with visitors, he warns that the Kuna version of history is different from what is presented to tourists by the Panamanian government.

As Inatoy puts it: "If I'm going to bring tourists to indigenous communities, I have to speak about my own history - where the Kuna come from, their conception of the world, their dance, spirituality, their knowledge." One potential tourism attraction, he notes, is a site where the Spanish conquistador Vazco Núñez de Balboa was beheaded, "We can take visitors there and explain what the arrival of the Spanish, the colonial invasion, meant for us."

Quintero agrees, that expertise must come from within the community, not from an outsider. She remembers what a Kuna leader told her during a recent visit to the Comarca: "He said that they don't want to lose their identity to obtain profits from tourism. They don't want communities to change and adapt to tourism, but rather tourism can adjust to them."

Source: Eco-Exchange (July 2001), published by the Rainforest Alliance.

Related link:

Read more about the Kuna Project at Eco-Index