The World Tourism Organization publishes facts and figures on international tourism, including a table of the World’s Top Emerging Tourism Destinations, as measured by the growth in international tourist arrivals.
The good news is that Bolivia has made it to the table! (Mexico and Brazil didn’t). The bad news is that it is at the very bottom of the table. Of the 76 countries included, Bolivia was last with an average annual growth rate in international tourist arrivals of 4.0% between 1995 and 2004.
Bolivia does indeed have an enormous tourism potential, but is not very good at exploiting it. Bolivia receives about 400 thousand international tourists per year, which means that just 1 in every 2000 international tourists stop by Bolivia. If tourists were randomly wandering all over the Earth’s land surface (including Antarctica), about 1 in 150 would accidentally enter Bolivia, so it seems they are actively avoiding this country.
This is a pity, both for Bolivia and for the tourists. For Bolivia because tourism is one of the few areas where Bolivia has a natural comparative advantage due to the amazing diversity of natural and cultural attractions, and because, in sharp contrast to natural gas exports, tourism generates jobs in a wide variety of sectors for both skilled and unskilled workers and entrepreneurs. Bolivia’s complicated geography is a serious constraint for the export of physical goods, but for the “export” of adventure and nature experiences to tourists, it is a distinct advantage.
For tourists it is a pity because Bolivia has so many spectacular things to offer at very affordable prices. Backpackers breathe a sigh of relief when they come to Bolivia, as their daily expenses drop to only a fraction of those in other Latin American countries.
While Bolivia doesn’t cater to the mass tourism market with long rows of beach hotels, it has plenty to offer to the more adventurous traveler. One of my favorites is the 6-hour bicycle ride on the World’s most dangerous road from La Cumbre to Rio Selva Resort near Coroico. The trip starts at over 5000 meters among snow clad mountains and goes down through the most spectacular and varied landscape on a mud road clinging to the almost vertical mountain sides, and ends in the swimming pool at a five-star hotel in the jungle.
But often Bolivia is just too adventurous. Most tourists are on a tight schedule and have non-changeable, non-refundable flights to catch. Just one little road block can disrupt an entire vacation. If you want to have a lot of tourists visiting a wide variety of places, at the very least you would have to be able to keep the roads passable.
A more systematic public tourist policy, however, could move Bolivia up the list of emerging tourism destinations to a more impressive position than 76th place. Bolivia ought to be close to Peru with tourist arrival growth rates above 10% per year. Especially since tourists in South America often visit several countries at a time, and Bolivia occupies a central position between the other main tourist destinations (Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Peru). It is not like they would have to go out of their way to visit Bolivia also.
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(*) Director, Institute for Advanced Development Studies, La Paz, Bolivia. The author happily receives comments at the following e-mail: email@example.com.