Last month, the Chilean Congress passed a new tourism law that, according to Sernatur director Oscar Santelices, will give the country a higher international profile - until now, Sernatur (the national tourism service) has been a bureaucratic stepchild with a limited promotional budget, but the new law will turn it into a cabinet-level “Subsecretaría” within two years. This would acknowledge the travel and tourism sector’s growing role in the country’s economy - about US$10 billion, comprising 3.5 percent of GDP and employing about 200,000 people.
In addition to increasing the resources for travel and tourism promotion, the new law also stipulates a growing professionalization of tourism operators and their guides, but this raises a number of questions whose answers are yet unclear. Certainly professionalism is desirable - especially with regard to accurate information and safety - but complex and expensive training requirements could benefit larger city-based operators at the expense of smaller ones who may lack the resources to upgrade their staffs to meet certain formal standards. Those standards may or may not be relevant in the specific context of, say, a local horseman who knows thinly populated northern Chilean Patagonia’s backcountry trails. Conceivably, such a law could throw knowledgeable people out of work.
For an example of how such a law might malfunction, one need only look across the Andes to Argentina, where guiding standards are much more highly regulated. In Argentine national parks, for instance, guides must have a university tourism degree, and take an examination for the specific park in question. My Argentine cousin, who works as a guide in Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, and leads groups to the famous Moreno Glacier almost every day in the summer season, is adamant that this is only appropriate, but I see real problems with these requirements.
For one, who is to say that a tourism degree is the only possible training for a guide? Many journalists, for instance, have English degrees, and the only genuine requirements for journalism should be writing and research skills. Traditionally, it’s up to an editor to decide who has those, but even that’s open to question - would anybody doubt that Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman has adequate writing and research skills to be a New York Times columnist, although his training is in economics?
In reality, meanwhile, Argentine law would prohibit a glaciologist from serving as a guide to the Moreno Glacier, unless that glaciologist also had a tourism degree. Likewise, it would prohibit a guide qualified for Los Glaciares from leading groups to Parque Nacional Perito Moreno, unless he or she were specifically qualified for that park, which has many similarities with Los Glaciares. This has the effect of reducing the pool of quality guides, especially for some more remote reserves.
That’s not to belittle my cousin’s qualifications and work ethic, as she is highly dedicated and knows a great deal about natural history. But I would hope that the Chileans, at least, would decide that when it comes to professional guides, there’s more than one route to reach the same destination.