Rural community based tourism in the northern Patagonia
Valcheta is a small town of 5000 inhabitants in the so-called “línea sur”, on route 23 that joins beaches of the Atlantic Ocean with Bariloche, well-known tourist attractions of Rio Negro. Its main economic activities, based on agriculture and livestock, have been decreasing considerably in recent years. It is a little known area outside the traditional circuits of Patagonia, but with great potential for the development of ecotourism, being one of the entrances to the impressive Somuncurá Plateau; a protected natural area of 25,000 square kilometers shared with the neighbouring province of Chubut.
Somuncurá (in the Araucanian language “stone that sounds or speaks“) is a basaltic plateau with peaks reaching 1,900 meters above sea level. It constitutes a unique landscape formed millions of years ago when Cordillera de los Andes originated. Here we can find endemic species such as the “mojarra desnuda” in the Valcheta stream, as well as guanacos, ostriches, hares, foxes and even pumas.
The Valcheta Alen Cooperative was formed five years ago as an initiative of a group of local entrepreneurs, with the aim of promoting region’s natural and cultural attractions and thus creating an additional source of employment and income for the local community. In order to achieve this result, they started a network of rural families interested in receiving visitors and sharing with them their daily activities in the field.
With their efforts, The Cooperative has managed to enhance Valcheta resources such as the Petrified Forest,
today a Natural heritage monument, where members collaborated to excavate and exhibit Forest’s millenary trunks.
Undoubtedly, the Somuncurá Plateau has great potential as a tourist attraction and having Valcheta as a “base location”, it is a great opportunity for further development. In addition to the circuit of 3 days and 2
nights offered, the cooperative has a strong social impact, organizing campaigns to bring food, clothing and firewood to the families of the plateau. Tourism proposals of the cooperative produce multiplied effect in the town of Valcheta and surroundings, giving work to small lodgings, markets, producers and local artisans, and generating opportunities for rural families to have an additional income.
Javier Luquet, tourism technician and president of the cooperative affirms: “we are working on creation of network of rural community tourism of Río Negro together with other networks that already exist, such as Cultura Rural Patagonica in Bariloche“. In this way and together with the national network of rural tourism – RATURC, they can promote tourism offer of these small entrepreneurs and make themselves known to the outgoing markets.
As part of our project in Latin America, we had the opportunity to spend six days collaborating with the people from Valcheta Alen in the development of its tourism offer. We visited the town and its main attractions, and by talking with members of the cooperative and other local actors, we reviewed together their current products and services, identifying its strengths and weaknesses. Finally, we provided useful tools to improve their tourism offer.
As for our suggestions to Javier and his team, we concluded that full development of circuits and specific itineraries is of the highest priority, the increase of online visibility through the creation of a complete website, the use of marketing and distribution channels, incoming travel agencies and specific intermediaries for NGOs, such as Visit.org, in order to reach more markets. On the other hand, it is necessary to clearly communicate the good practices they carry out, so that tourists know that their money is reinvested in the local community. Finally, constant training for rural families and especially young people is key to finding opportunities and professional growth in tourism.
The challenge now lies in the tourist development of the region together with municipality and the rest of the local and provincial actors, many of whom are still reluctant to collaborate with each other to create a homogeneous product and start promoting it. An example of this is the lack of cooperation of the part of the municipal authorities and the environment secretariat to grant permits required for cooperative to operate circuits within the plateau. Other areas to be improved at the municipal level include cleanliness of the town and connectivity through public transportation; an excellent opportunity such as the historic Tren Patagónico which connects Viedma with Bariloche, passes through the town only once a week in each direction.
The cooperative continues to work on improvements of its offer and creation of more synergies with public and private actors, with conviction that tourism can give Valcheta a new chance, acting as a tool for its inhabitants to value their land and not to abandon it.