Guatemala is a model country for tourism
FLORES, Guatemala- “If you only went to the tourists sites of Guatemala, you would think that it was a really nice country,” my wife Chaya observed.
Guatemala is a nice country, but more than giving an very general status report on the place, what my wife was really getting at that the country would seem “wealthy, clean, gentrified.”
It is true, if you only travel to the tourists hot spots of Guatemala you will see a very different scene before you than elsewhere in the country. The “made for tourism” towns of Guatemala are posh, they are first class destinations for first class travelers. Guatemala is now truly a world class travel destination for folks with money to spend.
This is not a country just for hippies, anthropologists, and vagabonds anymore.
The tourist areas of Guatemala have been somewhat gentrified — for the better, perhaps, for the worse, perhaps. But what I do know is that a lot of money is pouring into a few dots on a map of this land, in a few places the streets are clean, the old buildings restorated, the new buildings built magnificently to replicate the old, the country has become full of first class tourists doing first class things.
It is my impression that Guatemala has been going this way for a long time.
I came to Guatemala for the first time rather late on the scene. My first time in the country was in the spring of 2008, by this point I had already been traveling for eight years. I did what could be called the usual run through Guatemala this time through: went to Antigua, to Pana, to a few other villages around Lake Atitlan, to Flores, and out of the country to Mexico. I found the country good for travel, good for tourism.
Guatemala tourism industry is amazing
I was amazed over how much energy the tourism industry put into providing a travel structure that any type of traveler could use and enjoy. There were tourist shuttles between the tourist towns, hotel pickup services, and a basic doorstep to doorstep infrastructure was placed over every tourist destination in most of the country. It became apparent to me that someone could travel through this land and not need to step out of the tourist bubble once.
It has perhaps been figured out by the powers of economics who control such things that many people do not take vacations to Guatemala because they are afraid of Guatemalans. So the tourism industry has created a way for a person to travel the country end to end without every having to interact with a Guatemalan who is not serving them.
This is amazing for business, the masses of tourists have arrived, the tourist towns are fast changing — becoming ever more wealthy, becoming ever more posh, gentrified. It is wild to me that Guatemala has been able to create such a fool proof tourism structure to profit from while most other countries with vastly more resources have not bother.
Though if you wanted to step back down to the ground when traveling in Guatemala, it is also easy — you just had to board a local bus to a place you have never heard of before and stay in a cheap hotel. Guatemala is not like Southeast Asia where you need to struggle to break out through the walls of tourism.
But even the tourist areas of Guatemala are still not extraordinarily expensive, they are gentrified — most Guatemalans cannot afford to visit — but they are still within the budget of most travelers.
It is interesting how the tourism industry of this country can provide amenities for both backpackers on the cheap as well as true luxury tourists. It is also amazing how close together these two industries run together. The backpackers and the rich tourists live and travel side by side. Generally, I have found that in many countries there are the posh tourist areas and the slum dog backpacker joints — there is a big division between the two groups. The two types of tourist run virtually mutually exclusive of the other, neither enjoying each other’s fruits.
This was two years ago, now, on my second and third incidences of travel in Guatemala I have been able to observe the gentrification pattern being taken to extreme. The nice tourists towns of this country are now really nice tourist towns. The Antiguas, the Flores’ are continuously being taken to ever higher levels of tourism gentrification.
The t-shirt and cheap-o souvenir shops of Antigua are being replaced by high quality jewelers, the budget to mid-range eateries by truly upper end restaurants. Nearly every other door in Antigua is either a hotel, a restaurant, or a tour agency. I have a friend at the Hotel Casa Shalom, I returned to visit her when my family and I traveled back through Antigua in March. I put a website up for her mother’s hotel the last time I stayed there. At that time there was around four hotels on the block, now there are way more than ten — on the same block. The city was very upper class, very touristy the last time I was there — for sure — but the changes that I have observed in this direction that have taken place over the past two years are mind blowing: Antigua is now a luxury travel center of the world, it truly is.
Though kids dressed as hippies still walk through the cobblestone streets without shoes on their feet.
I paid the same price for my room as I did two years ago.
The last time I was in Flores, it was to visit Tikal, this time, it was because it was a logical stop off point on the road to Mexico. In 2008, Flores was definitely a tourist island — it was full of hotels and tourist restaurants and bars. This time I have noticed that its progression towards becoming a very upper class tourist city has grew unchecked. There are now posh, USA style convenient stores — open 24 hours a day — that were not there before, there are brand new towering mansion hotels for the rich on vacation, the walk way that circumambulates the island is now a completely decked out water front where last time I visited there was a long stretch of walking on a little dirt path around a bend that few tourists would trod, and the cheap barbeque chicken restaurants that once lined the main street have been replaced by luxury tourist restaurants. The place is changing, but it looks pretty nice.
I, again, paid the same price for my room.
This is a photo of the water front on the north eastern side of Flores in 2008. This area was somewhat of a no man’s land then. This area has now been renovated into a fully posh, paved water front with stairs leading down to the lake, people swimming, vendors selling food, and masses of people strolling.
Competition keeps prices low
Just so there are drastically more provisions for tourists than there are tourists Guatemala will remain a good country for budget travel. I noticed only a rise in appearances and services between the two years since I traveled to this country rather than a rise in prices. Competition in the tourist industry here has kept prices low. I can still get a really nice double room with a private bathroom and hot water for only a little over 10 USD per night.
The tourist industry in Guatemala is at a comfortable level — there is still a buyer’s market but it has not grown so drastically out of control that touts and people trying to sell things bother you at every step. Guatemala has found a gentle balance in tourism — there seems to be just enough tourists to keep this massive infrastructure in tact, but not so many that the prices rise out of control.
Guatemala tourism conclusion
Guatemala has grasped the keys of tourism that few countries put the effort into grabbing. They created a way for just about any type of travel to move about their country at their chosen level of comfort. There are different tiered price brackets for tourism, but the idea is the same: if tourism is the device which allows people to visit a country and experience more of what is good about it and less of what is bad, then Guatemala has created an example that just about every other country in the world can learn from.
Floating in a bubble through a country is not usually my game — I like the grit of traveling, I enjoy meeting the people in the streets, on the ground — but if I want the bubble, it is good to know that it is only a tourist shuttle away.