Rescuing Chile’s Roots

January 18, 2017

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Two Chilean initiatives are using luxury tourism to promote small businesses in rural areas and preserve indigenous cultural heritage.

Luxury tourism has come to Chile, bringing with it wealthy clients and transforming the quality of life of communities in rural areas throughout the country. Several towns have seen their physical surroundings and local economies change, which is gradually helping them to enjoy job growth.

Fernanda Gutiérrez (29) is a good example of this. She lives in Isla de Yáquil, a rural town near the city of Santa Cruz in Colchagua Province (O’Higgins Region). She has been making leather belts since she was 17, a trade that she taught herself and has perfected. Today she is a true saddler who specializes in carpincho, the leather that is typically used in her region.

Solving Social Problems through the Marketplace

Fernanda generates steady income through her handicrafts thanks to her participation in a business development and innovation program organized by Balloon Chile and Smartrip. Both entities hold a B certificate for companies that try to solve social problems through the marketplace. Balloon Chile and Smartrip want tourism to contribute to the development of communities and the preservation of their culture and identity.

Smartrip is a travel agency and foundation that offers discounts of up to 50 percent on stays in four- and five-star hotels throughout Chile during the off-season. This increases the occupancy rates of hotels and ensures that they will receive at least that 50 percent of the income that can be generated by renting rooms that would otherwise be empty. 80 percent of the profits are used to finance social programs directed at communities located near these exclusive hotels. Smartrip, which has an executive team of 12 and currently operates only in Chile, gets involved in the management of the hotels, allowing entrepreneurs to access a broad network of contacts and to participate in the value chain of the hotel network.

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Fellows in class with business owners. Photo (CC BY-SA): Smartrip

This is where Balloon comes into the picture. Sebastián Salinas, of Chile, and his British partner Joshua Bicknell founded the Chilean version of this international project in 2013. Its purpose is to reduce poverty through innovative methods and an entrepreneurial spirit. The Balloon Chile team is composed of nine employees and 14 partners who train students and professionals from around the world to serve as volunteers and share their knowledge with the small business owners who participate in the social programs.

The Value of Handmade Goods

Of the 160 small business owners who signed up for the Colchagua Valley program in 2014, only 20 completed it. All of the successful participants were invited to the Hotel Santa Cruz–which usually charges 330 to 700 Euros per night for a room- to present the products that they proposed as the hotel’s corporate gift. One of the five proposals selected as a finalist was a carpincho leather apron created by Fernanda Gutiérrez especially for this important occasion. She placed second in the competition.

It was a special honor for this young Colchagua native for her work to become the corporate gift for clients who spent that Christmas in the hotel. Fernanda was hired to create 50 aprons valued at 500,000 Chilean pesos, or 735 dollars. “I had never earned that much in a single payment before. It was a lot of money!” she exclaims. In addition, many of the people who received the apron as a gift later contacted her to purchase additional items. “People value handmade products. My pieces are different because they are exclusive, 100% handcrafted. I don’t use any machinery and I tailor-make them to the client’s specifications,” she explains.

The exposure that her products received through Smartrip and Balloon Chile was essential to launching Fernanda’s career as an artisan. But it is not just a matter of publicity. Fernanda is also grateful for the quality of the training that she received. She says that these entities helped her to create a brand, which included designing a logo, marketing her work through Facebook, learning to sell and price her products, and to charge for her materials as well as for her “woman hours.”

A Growing Program

Approximately 530 entrepreneurs were trained through the initiative between 2013 and 2015, most of them in the Araucanía Region of southern Chile. The area is home to a majority of the Mapuche-Pehuenche population, two of Chile’s indigenous peoples. As direct descendants of these communities, local residents can describe the pre-Columbian world view better than anyone.

Trades like weaving, jewelry making and sculpting continue to be passed from generation to generation. Rosita Sid, one of the winners of the program held in Pucón and Curarrehue, used her award to teach Mapuche jewelry-making techniques to women in the Villarrica prison. Verónica Quintonahuel developed a similar initiative, offering visitors an opportunity to learn about Mapuche culture during the excursions that she leads near the Sollipulli Volcano.

Chilean cultural heritage has been preserved thanks to money from luxury tourism, which Balloon Chile and Smartrip use sensibly.

Tags: building resilient economies, indigenous culture, new economy, social enterprise