With the general architecture in place, here are some of the preliminary steps Kuna communities could incorporate today (some islands have already begun)
Step #1. Educate travelers about the Kuna customs and traditions.
On my first trip to Isla Robinson in San Blas, I was greeted by a local Kuna “dude” who had bleached blonde hair and was wearing a Metallica t-shirt. My two days were spent beach bathing and assisting a group of Germans building intricate sand castles. When I became bored with the first two activities, I joined a group of jocks types to challenge the local Kuna team of 5’4 to a game of beach volleyball (we got WIPED!).
I left San Blas with a bad sunburn, sand encrusted nails, and ZERO cultural understanding of the Kuna people. Indeed, it was a missed opportunity to learn about the one of the worlds last remaining native tribes.
My return trip to San Blas was the complete opposite. My mother and I stayed at the upscale Yandup Lodge. Here too, we relaxed on beautiful uninhabited tropical island beaches. What was different was that the interaction with the local Kuna culture was plentiful. There were daily trips to the Kuna community. There were guides to stroll us around their small village. We observed local town hall meeting. Most rewarding was mingling with the locals. Futhermore, the entire staff of the lodge was willing to share details of their culture. It was a much more rich experience.
I believe communities like the one I visited at Yandup, could go one step further. It could utilize their website as an education portal by including sections about Kuna history, customs, and traditions; photographs of native arts and crafts; and list basic Kuna vocabulary and greetings, much like Hawaiian words and phrases have become part of the English language.
When the guests arrive, provide them opportunities to see Kuna ceremonies, join their fishermen, travel to small islands, visit the mainland rainforests, watch their crafts being made, and interact/volunteer with their community. Promoting the Kuna culture is a win win proposition. The tourist’s experience is enahanced. The Kuna culture becomes more valued and appreciated.
Step #2. Retain Kuna youth.
Meet Luis. Luis is a 23 year old guide at Yandup Lodge in Playa Chinco, San Blas. Luis migrated to Panama City at age 12 to obtain an education. When he finished his schooling, Luis was presented with two choices: a) work at dead end restaurant job where he would be paid relatively well by Kuna standards, but he would be regarded as a member of Panama’s lowest social class; or b) he could return to Playa Chinco and work as a guide at Yandup Lodge.
Since the supply of guides was limited, Luis became a guide. His wages, with the tips, was on par with those he could expect to earn in Panama City. More importantly, Luis has psychological benefit of being a top wage earner for a young male in his community. He is able to educate travelers about his own local Kuna culture. Today, Luis beems with confidence of being an ambassador to his people.
Retaining young men and women like Luis is absolutely necessary to the survival of the Kuna culture. Providing opportunities for the Kuna’s youth improves community continuity and allows the community to cultivate future leaders. It also strengthens the Kuna’s tourism industry. Young, enthusiastic advocates of the Kuna culture make first time visitors into second, third, and fourth time patrons.
Step #3. Support causes.
Small, matching donations for a local cause is a great way to raise revenue and create connections. Las Clementinas in Casco Viejo does a great job of this by matching contributions up to $10 for their local work development program for disadvantaged mothers.
Kuna hotels could start small. For example, Playa Chico is currently trying to implement a recycling program to promote healthier and greener living styles. Ask guests to match small contributions up to $10 to support the recycling program. Update the progress of the program on the website. This allows guests to feel a part of the cause which is very powerful when the guests have seen the need.
Once the donation-to-community project framework is in place, replication becomes easy. Future programs could include ecological projects, micro loans for entrepreneurs, school improvements, health programs, and scholarships to returning Kuna youth. Encourage guests to contribute to what they can so clearly see as a need.
Everyone who visits the San Blas Island wants to return. But, they want to return to the same unspoiled paradise they experienced. This desire to preserve the wonders of the San Blas should make a targeted giving program successful.
Achieving sustainable development will not be easy. Future obstacles will certainty arise. The temptation of hoarding profits for the few will create jealously and resentment of others. That’s human behavior. In order to prevent this negative complex from taking root, local Kuna hotelier should partner with nearby communities and incorporate them into the tourist experience. Spread the tangible fruits of tourism.
I have tremendous confidence in the Kuna people’s tourism prospects. In 10 years, they have turned one of the most inaccessible places in the world into one of Panama’s top tourism destinations. It was accomplished with a shoestring budget. They had practically no political influence. Their islands carried no international mega hotel chain. Yet, the Kuna people are echando pa’lante! (moving ahead) and there is progress to see every year. They should be proud of their accomplishments. If their hard-work continues, prospects for sustainable development are rosy.