Human Connections B Y K E N Z I E YO S H I M U R A
In México, it is not uncommon for someone, even a stranger, to welcome you with the words, estás en tu casa. One step further than the English phrase make yourself at home, in Spanish, your host tells you: you are in your home.
In a place like Bucerías, Nayarit, a small coastal town just north of bustling tourist hub Puerto Vallarta, the evidence is clear. A highway divides the area in two, effectively drawing a line between the beach side of the town, littered with hotels, expensive vacation rentals, restaurants, and crowded market stalls; and the other side of the highway, where more local people live and work and few foreigners venture. Iterations of this dynamic exist all over México, and all over the world. The classic power struggle between locals and tourism may call to mind images of all-inclusive resorts pushing out local housing or damaging the ecosystem. Eco- and “green” travel has experienced a boom in the last decade, but impact on the environment is only one piece of the puzzle. How can travelers and the hospitality industry alike practice responsible, sustainable tourism on a cultural level? On a human level? “It’s interesting that these negative outcomes are almost expected - and accepted - by both the host and the traveler,” said Elly Rohrer, the founder and director of Human Connections, a nonprofit organization based in Bucerías. “I think the responsible tourism movement is about changing that expectation.” Several mornings a week, tourists are welcomed into Human Connections’ small office in the center of town, where they gather around large maps of México and of Bucerías itself. Over coffee, they listen to an introduction from Tour Director Maya Mitre, who gives contextual information about the area and the people they will visit that day. Human Connections has been running educational programs in the area for four years, building relationships with local entrepreneurs. On the tours, travelers are welcomed into the homes and workshops of artisans, where through translated conversations, they share their stories and their artistic process.
P H OTO : K I E R ST E N L A BZ DA
Indeed, many people from all over the world have made, or found, their home here in México. Tourist arrivals to the country reached an all-time high in December 2017, according to Trading Economics. Some of these visitors stay for a week or two, while a growing number of expats reside here full- or part-time.
HUMAN CONNECTIONS FOUNDER AND E X E C U T I V E D I R E C T O R E L LY R O H R E R
The organization’s goal is to help bridge that divide between locals and tourists in a way that is mutually beneficial. “Instead of simply being impacted by tourism, our partners are able to participate as hosts. They have agency over their own stories and influence the way that travelers experience this place,” said Rohrer. The guests, in turn, leave with a deeper understanding of the complexity of Mexico and the lives of the artisans behind the products they might see for sale in the market or on the beach. The organization also pays the artisans fairly for their time on the tours, as part of their commitment to social responsibility. Human Connections now works with ten local families that specialize in everything from hammock making to piñatas to traditional indigenous art. The team envisions a world in which tourism is seen as a force for good; a way to connect instead of a source of disconnection and damage to the host country and culture. “The objective of the connections we make is to ensure that the hosts as well as the tourists feel comfortable,” says Mitre of the tour visits. “The experience is simply about one person visiting another in their home, putting aside, at least for an hour, their cultural differences. Just two human beings coexisting in the same space, focusing on the similarities and not on the differences.
Human Connections is a 503(c) nonprofit organization in Bucerías, Nayarit, México. For more information on its mission and impact, visit www.humanconnections.org. For questions or to learn about how you can participate in a Human Connections’ program as a traveler or a student, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.