Historically and outside of business, travel has been rooted in vacations and excursions, with leisure often taking center stage. While leisure activities are still part of the allure of the travel experience, new dynamics are emerging suggesting that the response to an industry recently impacted by the pandemic downturn could rebound with understanding, learning and global immersion at the helm.
In 2020, the tourism and travel industries saw the sector lose $4.5 trillion and $62 million jobs, prompting many to turn to sustainable recovery techniques. The World Economic Forum 2021 The Travel and Tourism Development Index highlights the need to embed inclusiveness, sustainability and long-term resilience in the sector. Part of the effort is to become engines of global connectivity that enhance the economic and social progress of the cultures involved.
Language learning is part of the process. Not only can this enrich the traveler’s experience, but it can be a real benefit for anyone. get into the travel business. Language learning offers genuine respect for the cultures visited while adding a nuance of understanding and connection.
With inclusiveness as a model, the travel industry has the ability to open up offerings that go beyond the superficial and into immersion and understanding with global connectivity and awareness at the forefront. As a result, travel is particularly well placed to redefine its economic role in a more responsible way in relation to the cultures and people visited.
Chelsea Glass, the founder of Heart of the trip, is ahead of the game in understanding the dynamics of travel, connection, language, cultural awareness and inclusivity. Raised in California but based in Guatemala, Glass offers travelers a bridge that connects cultures. Glass first launched Heart of Travel in the United States in 2016, officially registering the company in Guatemala in 2018.
The organization prides itself on having a full-time staff led by women working from the main office in Guatemala. The small core team works with many independent guides, drivers, artists and artisans. At any one time, over 100 people are involved in the touring process in different parts of Latin America and beyond. Tours are taking place in Guatemala, Mexico City, Wahaca, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Peru, Spain and Cuba, with Colombia and Argentina scheduled for 2023.
Language as connection
Knowledge of the language is central to the team’s touring principles. “Our escorts are usually women who are all fluently bilingual,” says Glass. “Beyond speaking two different languages, it’s about being able to understand multiple cultures and acting as a bridge.” The tour leaders are highly skilled, trained and well-studied in the language and different cultures as they guide participants through an immersive travel experience.
Glass focuses on the realism of the travel experience that breaks with conventional models. “Sometimes in the travel industry there’s a glorification or over-romanticization of indigenous culture that becomes almost too folksy,” Glass adds. “Unfortunately, it does not respect reality these days. I believe that our connections with people [in the community] is the first thing that sets us apart.
Don Jose’s story
A great example is Heart of Travel’s relationship with a local coffee producer in Guatemala named Don José. The story of how Glass and her team met and ultimately collaborated is a remarkable heartfelt journey that shows the power of relationship building and caring.
In 2018, after one of Fuego Volcano’s largest eruptions hit Costa Antigua, which lost many lives, farmland and infrastructure, Glass and his team launched a GoFundeMe to help with the efforts. After raising an unexpected $30,000, they rolled out efforts in the area.
In their work, they encountered Gloria, the pregnant widow of a firefighter named San Antonia, who lost her life in the firefighting efforts after the eruption. While helping Gloria recover, they got to know her for a long time. Visiting her when her baby was born, they were introduced to her father, Don José, a dynamic individual who happened to be a small coffee farmer in the area.
Soon the relationship with Don José grew more and more, and Heart of Travel added tours as a staple to its offerings. “We go directly to Don José. Then we get in the back of Don José’s van, and he takes us to his country,” says Glass. “Don José shares his experience as a coffee producer, telling us about all the challenges he faces as a small producer. Then we return to his home for lunch with his family. It offers a real experience, rather than feeling transactional and touristy.
Cultural learning and support
It is from this shared experience that Glass and his team bring a more robust and full-bodied lift to the travel experience with attached cultural learning and awareness. His efforts provide tourists with experiences that also directly impact the livelihoods of many people who come across the tour experience. For example, rather than offering a tour tied to a popular, larger producer whose wages are minimal for workers, the Heart of Travel’s smaller independent model offers a direct financial impact to attendees.
Another touring effort is with the Garifuna population in Guatemala, increasing awareness of the complexities of the remote indigenous group. The Garifuna are an Afro-Guatemalan group who have maintained their West African and Carib-Arawak traditions, despite years of adversity.
Heart of Travel travels through this region with introductory teachings that enhance understanding of the Garifuna. Spanish lessons, which are part of the effort, examine language differences, accents and vocabulary correlated with culture.
Language learning is equally important to Glass’ philosophy of travel. After earning a master’s degree from Sacramento State, she applies her knowledge base to delve deeper into the diversity of Spanish that exists throughout Latin America. “It’s not seamless,” says Glass.
Unlike some of the structured programs found in school, Glass has created a Spanish learning course as part of the Heart of Travel experience with online materials that incorporate the culture. “The course is mostly made up of videos and pre-recorded PDFs. However, there are also live calls with myself and other instructors,” says Glass. “Pre-recorded videos are not boring classroom videos; we allow people to travel virtually. Part of learning is being able to visit people like Don José and other providers, like the Garifuna community.
Remarkably, Glass and her team blend cultural learning, experience and language development into an inclusive package for the world of travel. Heart of Travel strives to provide an in-depth travel experience with tremendous impact on the traveler and the lives of the people they visit.
Organizations like Heart of Travel recognize that travel can bring cultures together in a two-way exchange that benefits the traveler and the communities visited. While Glass’s efforts are aimed at making the tours educational and rewarding for visitors, to her it is of vital importance that the focus remains on the culture and livelihoods of the people who inhabit the respective regions.
In a global economy characterized by borderless communication, it stands to reason that travel can be an enjoyable experience while setting the stage for enriching lifelong learning activities.
Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.