Written By: Jesús Parrilla, Principal, Luxury Frontiers
The United Nations declared 2019 the International Year of Indigenous Languages in an effort to raise awareness and exalt the importance of Indigenous Languages to our world´s rich heritage and cultural diversity.
This UN resolution draws attention to the precariousness of Indigenous Languages: of the 7,000 languages spoken in the world today, one-third of these are endangered, each with less than 1,000 remaining speakers. In contrast, more than half of the world´s population speaks just 23 languages.
According to UNESCO, approximately 600 languages have disappeared in the last century, and they continue to disappear at an alarming rate of one language every two weeks. At this rate, it is estimated that up to 90 percent of the world’s languages are likely to disappear before the end of this century.
Having held leadership roles at the Chilean hospitality company Explora Lodges and the responsible tour operator Smartrip Chile, I have had the opportunity to work in places where some of these at-risk languages are spoken. I’ve paid witness to cultural heritage under attack — not only from environmental degradation and climate change but also from socio-economic pressures and the accelerating pace of global tourism.
While the positive role of travel in the preservation and enhancement of local cultures is well documented, tourism companies are also to blame — partly for reasons relating to over tourism and the increasingly high standards for experiential luxury — for the loss of these precious languages and cultures. It behooves us to correct these wrongs, holding ourselves to higher standards of responsibility and accountability. And it starts with taking the UN 2019 declaration as an urgent call to develop policies and programs that promote and protect the rights of indigenous people.
One of the more harmful and pervasive practices I’ve observed is the phenomenon of “culture-washing,” whereby a tour operator or hotel exploits an environment (land, local communities, and indigenous cultures) for financial gain. This folklorization of cultural heritage — that is, the commodification of culture for economic interests— is a kind of corporate colonialism that corrupts and jeopardizes the authentic heritage of ancestral communities.
The role of travel companies and clients must go beyond the obvious and superficial. For example, taking a busload of tourists to an Andean or Amazon region, offering them coca tea and watching them perform a traditional dance reduces sacred acts to mere spectacles.
Instead, as hospitality and travel professionals, we must learn about these communities, languages, and traditions in a genuine and deeply deferential way. This means demonstrating the utmost respect for people’s ways of life, without imposition or intervention. And when partnerships are consensually entered into, travel companies must work with and around the local traditions in a way that allows these tourism practices to be meaningfully passed on from generation to generation. To that end, safeguarding measures need to be put in place so that travelers can observe and interact with local communities in a sensitive and mindful way, thus protecting authentic cultural expressions.
As existing travel companies redesign and re-evaluate their role and interaction with local and Indigenous communities, and as newcomers begin to design out their experiential programming, learning about these communities and absorbing and incorporating those learnings is a vital part of their preservation. Language can only survive if cultural heritage is protected.