Historically and outside of business, travel has been rooted in vacations and excursions, with leisure often at the forefront of the journey. While leisure is 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 recover with global understanding, learning and immersion at the helm.
In 2020, the tourism and travel industry saw the sector lose $4.5 trillion and 62 million jobs, prompting many to look to sustainable revival techniques. The World Economic Forum 2021 Travel and Tourism Development Index highlights the need to embed long-term inclusiveness, sustainability and resilience in the sector. Part of the effort is to become drivers of global connectivity that amplify the economic and social progress of the cultures involved.
Learning languages is part of the process. Not only can it enrich the traveler’s experience, but it can also be a real benefit for anyone entering the travel business. Language learning offers a genuine respect for the cultures visited and adds a nuance of understanding and connection.
With inclusiveness as its model, the travel industry has the ability to open offerings beyond the superficial and immerse and understand with global connectivity and awareness at the forefront. As a result, travel is uniquely positioned 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 Travel, is at the forefront of understanding the dynamics of travel, connection, language, cultural awareness and inclusivity. Raised in California but based in Guatemala, Glass offers travelers a bridge connecting cultures. Glass first started Heart of Travel in the US in 2016 and officially registered the company in Guatemala in 2018.
The organization prides itself on a strong female-led full-time staff working from its headquarters in Guatemala. The small core team works with many freelance guides, drivers, artists and craftsmen. At any given time, more than 100 people are involved in the touring process in various parts of Latin America and elsewhere. Tours are being held in Guatemala, Mexico City, Wahaca, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Peru, Spain and Cuba, with Colombia and Argentina slated for 2023.
Language as connection
Language skills are at the heart of the team’s touring principles. “Our tour guides are mostly women who are all fully bilingual,” Glass says. “In addition to speaking two different languages, it’s about understanding multiple cultures and acting as a bridge.” The female tour guides are highly skilled, trained and well studied in both the language and the different cultures they guide participants in an immersive travel experience.
Glass focuses on the realism of the travel experience that breaks away from conventional models. “Sometimes within the travel industry there is a glorification or over-romanticization of indigenous culture that becomes almost too folkloric,” Glass adds. “Unfortunately, it does not perceive what is the reality today. I believe that our connections with people [in the community] is the main thing that sets us apart.”
The Story of Don Jose
A good example is Heart of Travel’s relationship with Don José, a local coffee farmer in Guatemala. The story of how Glass and her team met and eventually worked together is a remarkable heartfelt journey that shows the power of building and nurturing relationships.
In 2018, after one of the largest eruptions of Fuego volcano hit Costa Antigua, losing many lives, farmland and infrastructure, Glass and her team started a GoFundeMe to aid in the effort. After unexpectedly raising $30,000, they pounced on the region.
While working, they met Gloria, the pregnant widow of a firefighter named San Antonia, who died in the blaze after the eruption. While helping Gloria recover from the emergency, they got to know her over an extended period of time. When they visited her at the birth of her baby, they became acquainted with her father, Don José, a dynamic person who happened to be a small coffee farmer in the region.
Soon the relationship with Don José grew more and more, and Heart of Travel added tours as a staple to their offering. “We’re going straight to Don Jose’s house. Then we drive in the back of Don José’s pick-up and he takes us to his country,” says Glass. “Don José shares his experience as a coffee farmer and talks about all the challenges he faces as a small grower. Then we return to his house for lunch with his family. It offers a real experience, rather than a transactional and touristy feel.”
Cultural learning and support
By sharing these experiences, Glass and her team are bringing a more robust, fuller lift to the travel experience with cultural learning and awareness. Her efforts provide tourists with experiences that also directly affect the livelihoods of many people who cross the travel experience. For example, instead of giving a tour associated with a popular, more prominent grower whose wages are minimal for the workers, Heart of Travel’s smaller independent model provides a direct financial impact for the participants.
Another tour effort is with the Garifuna people of Guatemala, bringing more awareness to 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 hardship.
Heart of Travel tours this region with preparatory classes that increase understanding of the Garifuna. Spanish language courses, which are part of the effort, explore language differences, accents, and vocabulary associated with the culture.
Language learning is just as important to Glass’s travel philosophy. After earning a master’s degree from the State of Sacramento, she applies her knowledge to delve deeper into the diversity of Spanish that exists throughout Latin America. “It’s not homogeneous,” Glass says.
Unlike some of the structured curricula found in school, Glass has developed a Spanish course as part of the Heart of Travel experience with online material that integrates culture. “The course mainly consists of pre-recorded videos and PDFs. However, there are also live conversations with myself and other instructors,” says Glass. “The pre-recorded videos are not boring classroom videos; we let people 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 combine cultural learning, experience and language development as an inclusive package for the travel world. Heart of Travel strives to give depth to the travel experience with a far-reaching impact on the traveler and the lives of the people they visit.
Organizations such as Heart of Travel recognize that travel can bridge cultures in a mutual exchange that benefits the traveler and the communities visited. While Glass’s efforts are focused on making the tours educational and rewarding for visitors, it is vital to her that the emphasis remains on the culture and livelihoods of the people who call the respective regions home.
In a global economy with boundless communication, it makes sense that travel can be a pleasurable experience while also setting the stage for enriching lifelong learning.
The interviews have been edited and abbreviated for clarity.