Interview with Harris Whitbeck, Director of the Guatemalan Institute of Tourism (INGUAT)

Visit Latin America: Can you tell us about your vision for tourism in Guatemala in the context of your mandate and the key strategies you have in mind to achieve it?

Harris Whitbeck, Director of the Guatemalan Institute of Tourism (INGUAT)

Harris Whitbeck, Director of the Guatemalan Institute of Tourism (INGUAT)

It is very important to work with two approaches. The first is to promote community-led tourism. This is important on a number of levels: community-led tourism creates much more authentic products and that’s what today’s traveller is looking for and that’s what the type of traveller we want to attract to Guatemala is looking for. They are looking for authenticity, contact with indigenous cultures, and the exchange of knowledge and experiences with host populations and communities. We are betting a lot on promoting community tourism, but this will only be useful if we think a little more long-term, when we need to invest more in tourism infrastructure.


VLA: What do you see as the main challenges facing the Guatemalan tourism sector today, and what unique opportunities do these challenges present?

We need to attract hotel groups because there is a lack of accommodation in the country. We need to improve connectivity in every sense of the word, improve roads in tourist areas, improve air connectivity. We are working to improve the situation at international airports, and we also need to work with local municipalities to preserve the environment.

The approach to tourism has to be multi-sectoral and the advantage of this government is that it has access to Cabinet meetings. We have access to the different ministries involved in the issues we have to deal with, which makes our multi-sectoral approach much more effective.


VLA: How do you intend to strengthen Guatemala’s position on the international tourism scene? Is there a specific marketing plan that should be given priority?

We are in the process of reformulating our marketing plans and acquiring new tools to move from processing simple statistics to Big Data. Big Data gives us access to information that enables us to better understand visitors’ motivations. Why do they decide to look for a country like Guatemala? What are they looking for in a destination? How much do they intend to spend? How do they spend it? Do they pay by card or cash? What type of accommodation are they looking for? With more information about our potential visitors, we know how to target our marketing messages and the benefits to them.


VLA: IGUAT has signed a strategic agreement with Iberia. How does this initiative fit in with the long-term development of European tourism in Guatemala?

With Iberia, we are going to start working together on marketing campaigns in five European markets: France, Italy, Germany, the UK and Spain. These are the markets where interest in Guatemala has been strongest and where Guatemala is very little known, so a number of initiatives will be put in place to make the country better known.


VLA: How do you plan to involve local communities in the development and promotion of tourism?

Our aim in four years’ time is to create a national crafts and textiles centre that will be a new destination for Guatemala, in other words, a new excuse to come and visit the country. Guatemala is already known throughout the world for the high quality of its textiles and crafts, and we believe that INGUAT has the potential to strengthen these industries. We are working hand in hand with the communities where these products, textiles and crafts are made to create a space where we can celebrate the wonderful beauty of the diversity of crafts and textiles, but also be a centre for knowledge exchange where visitors can come and learn how crafts are made, where there can be cultural exchanges with craftspeople from other countries.

The idea is to make it a very dynamic and lively museum, because what we want in the long term is for visitors to come and spend more nights in the country and more money per day, which means developing products that attract them.


VLA: What new experiences do you intend to promote during your term of office?

Gastronomy is one of the areas we want to exploit to the full. Guatemala’s gastronomy is three thousand years old and there are some great stories to tell. The beauty of gastronomy is that it brings together many people, invites many suppliers, many chefs, many cooks, many producers of ingredients to join a chain that brings them economic benefits and a great story to tell.

Guatemala joined the international network of cocoa routes this year. Cocoa is a key ingredient in Guatemalan cuisine and is native to the region. So it’s only natural for us to make the most of it, and we’re also in the process of creating a route based on crafts and textiles.


VLA: What message would you like to send to tourism professionals?

Believe in us, come and visit us. If they know anything about Guatemala, they should know that we at INGUAT are more than willing to give them the information they need to be able to sell more of our country. We invite you to come and meet us, to discover the wonders of Guatemala: Guatemala is such a diverse country in terms of culture, gastronomy, art and nature. Not everyone knows us, so this is a great opportunity for them to get to know a new destination that they can sell.




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