Historically and outside of business, travel has been rooted in vacations and excursions, with leisure often taking precedence in travel. Although leisure pursuits are always part of the appeal of the travel experience, a new dynamic is emerging, suggesting that the response to an industry recently hit by pandemic slowdowns can be restored with global understanding, learning and immersion at the forefront. .
In 2020, the tourism and travel industry revealed that the sector lost $4.5 trillion and 62 million jobs, leading many to look at long-term recovery techniques. The World Economic Forum’s 2021 Travel and Tourism Development Index highlights the need to include long-term inclusion, sustainability and sustainability in the sector. Part of the effort is to become drivers of global connectivity that enhance the economic and social progress of the cultures involved.
Learning the language is part of the process. Not only can it enrich the traveler’s experience, but it can be a real advantage for anyone entering the travel profession. Learning the language provides a true respect for the cultures visited by adding a nuance of understanding and connection.
With inclusivity as a model, the travel industry has the ability to open offerings that go beyond the surface and enter immersion and understanding with global connectivity and awareness at the forefront. As a result, travel is uniquely positioned to redefine its economic role more responsibly in relation to the cultures and people visited.
Chelsea Glass, founder of Heart of Travel, is ahead of the game in understanding the dynamics of travel, connection, language, cultural awareness and inclusion. Raised in California but based in Guatemala, Glass offers travelers a bridge that connects cultures. Glass first started Heart of Travel in the US in 2016, officially registering the company in Guatemala in 2018.
The organization boasts a full-time female-led staff working out of the main Guatemalan office. The small core team works with many independent guides, drivers, artists and artisans. At any point in time, over 100 people are involved in the tour process in various parts of Latin America and elsewhere. Tours are held in Guatemala, Mexico City, Wahaca, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Peru, Spain and Cuba, with Colombia and Argentina planned for 2023.
Language as connection
Knowing the language is at the core of the team’s tournament principles. “Our tour leaders are usually women who are all fully bilingual,” says Glass. “Beyond speaking two different languages, it’s about being able to understand multiple cultures and act as a bridge.” The female tour guides are highly competent, trained and well-studied in both languages and cultures as they guide participants through a comprehensive travel experience.
Glass focuses on providing the realism of the travel experience that breaks away from conventional models. “Sometimes within the travel industry, there’s a glorification or over-romanticization of indigenous culture that becomes almost too folkloric,” adds Glass. “Unfortunately, she doesn’t observe what reality is these days. I believe in our connections with people [in the community] it’s the number one thing that sets us apart.”
The story of Don Jose
A prime example is Heart of Travel’s relationship with a local coffee farmer in Guatemala named Don José. The story of how Glass and her team met and eventually collaborated is an incredibly heartfelt journey that shows the power of building relationships and caring.
In 2018, after one of the largest eruptions of the Fuego volcano affected Costa Antigua, which lost many lives, farmland and infrastructure, Glass and her team started a GoFundeMe to help with the effort. After raising a windfall of $30,000, they poured their efforts into the region.
On their job, they meet Gloria, the pregnant widow of a San Antonia firefighter who died in the firefighting efforts after the explosion. As they helped Gloria with her easy recovery, they got to know her over a long period of time. While visiting her at the birth of her baby, they met her father, Don José, a dynamic individual who happened to be a small coffee farmer in the region.
Soon, the relationship with Don José grew stronger and Heart of Travel added tours as a staple in their offerings. “We go directly to Don Jose’s house. Then we get in the back of Don Jose’s pickup truck and he takes us to his land,” says Glass. “Don José shares his experience as a coffee farmer, telling us about all the challenges he faces as a small grower. Afterwards, we return to his house for lunch with his family. It offers a genuine experience, rather than feeling transactional and touristy.”
Learning and Cultural Support
It is from this exchange of experiences that Glass and her team are bringing a more powerful and complete lift to the travel experience with cultural learning and awareness attached. Its efforts are providing experiences for tourists that also directly impact the livelihoods of the many individuals who intersect the tour experience. For example, instead of taking a tour associated with a well-known, prominent grower whose wages are minimal for workers, Heart of Travel’s smaller independent model provides a direct financial impact for participants.
Another tourism effort is with the Garifuna population in Guatemala, which brings greater awareness to the complexities of the remote indigenous group. The Garifuna are an Afro-Guatemalan group that has maintained their West African and Caribbean-Arawak traditions despite years of adversity.
Heart of Travel visits this region with introductory lessons that enhance understanding of the Garifuna. Spanish language courses, which are part of the effort, examine language differences, accents and vocabulary related to culture.
Learning the language is just as important to Glass’s travel philosophy. After earning a master’s degree from Sacramento State, she is applying her knowledge base to delve deeper into the diversity within Spanish that exists throughout Latin America, “It’s not homogenous,” says Glass.
Unlike some of the structured curricula found in school, Glass has created a Spanish learning course as part of the Heart of Travel experience with online materials that integrate the culture. “The course consists mostly of pre-recorded videos and PDFs. However, there are also live calls with me and other instructors,” says Glass. “Pre-recorded videos are not boring classroom videos; we allow people to travel virtually. Part of the lesson is being able to visit people like Don José and other providers, like the Garifuna community.
Amazingly, Glass and her team are blending cultural learning, experience and language development as a comprehensive package for the world of travel. Heart of Travel is making an effort to add depth to the travel experience with a far-reaching impact on the traveler and the lives of the people who visit.
Organizations like Heart of Travel recognize that travel can connect cultures in a two-way exchange that benefits both the traveler and the communities visited. While Glass’ efforts are focused on making tours educational and rewarding for visitors, to him, it is extremely important that the emphasis remains on the culture and lifestyle of the people who call the respective regions home.
In a global economy with borderless communication, it stands to reason that travel can act as an enjoyable experience while setting the stage for enriching lifelong learning pursuits.
Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.