Historically and outside business, travel has been rooted in vacations and excursions, with leisure often taking a front seat on the trip. Although leisure pursuits are always part of the draw of the travel experience, a new dynamic is emerging, suggesting that the answer to an industry recently affected by pandemic slowdowns may rebound with global understanding, learning and immersion at the helm.
In 2020, the tourism and travel industries found the sector losing $4.5 trillion and 62 million jobs, prompting many to look at long-lasting revival techniques. The World Economic Forum 2021 Travel and Tourism Development index emphasizes the need to embed long-term inclusivity, sustainability, and resilience into the sector. Part of the effort is to become drivers of global connectivity that enhance the economic and social progress of the cultures involved.
Language learning is part of the process. Not only can it enrich the traveler’s experience, but it can act as a real advantage for anyone entering the travel profession. Language learning provides a genuine respect for the cultures visited while adding a nuance of understanding and connection.
With inclusivity as the model, the travel industry has the ability to open up offerings that go beyond the superficial and enter into 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 connection to the cultures and people visited.
Chelsea Glass, the founder of the Heart of Travel, is ahead of the game in understanding the dynamic of travel, connection, language, cultural awareness, and inclusivity. California-raised but Guatemalan-based, Glass provides travelers with a bridge that connects cultures. Glass started Heart of Travel first in the US in 2016, officially registering the company in Guatemala in 2018.
The organization prides itself on a heavily female-led full-time staff working out of the main Guatemalan office. The small core team works with many freelance guides, drivers, artists, and artisans. At any point in time, over 100 people are involved in the touring process in different 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 scheduled for 2023.
Language as Connection
Language knowledge is at the core of the team’s touring 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 acting as a bridge.” The female tour leaders are highly competent, trained, and well studied in both language and the various cultures they guide participants in an immersive travel experience.
Glass focuses on providing realism to the travel experience that breaks away from conventional models. “Sometimes inside the travel industry, there’s a glorification or over romanticization of indigenous culture that becomes almost too folklorish,” adds Glass. “Unfortunately, it doesn’t observe what the reality is these days. I believe our connections with people [in the community] is 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 a remarkable heartfelt journey that shows the power of relationship building and caring.
In 2018 after one of the largest eruptions of the Fuego volcano affected Costa Antigua, which lost many lives, farmland, infrastructure, Glass and her team started a GoFundeMe to help with the efforts. After raising an unexpected $30,000, they poured efforts into the region.
In their work, they met Gloria, the pregnant widow of a firefighter named San Antonia, who lost his life in the fire efforts after the eruption. While helping Gloria with relief recovery, they got to know her over an extended period of time. While visiting her at the birth of her baby, they were introduced to 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 more and more, and Heart of Travel added tours as a staple to their offerings. “We go directly to Don Jose’s house. Then, we ride in the back of Don José’s pickup truck, and he takes us to his land,” says Glass. “Don José shares his experience as a coffee farmer, telling us of all the challenges he faces as a small grower. Afterward, we return to his house for lunch with his family. It provides a real experience, rather than feeling transactional and touristy.”
Cultural Learning and Support
It’s from this sharing of experiences that Glass and her team are bringing a more robust, full-bodied lift to the travel experience with cultural learning and awareness attached. Her efforts are providing experiences for tourists that also directly impact the livelihoods of many individuals intersecting the tour experience. For instance, rather than giving a tour linked to a popular, more prominent grower whose wages are minimal for the workers, the Heart of Travel’s smaller independent model offers a direct financial impact to the participants.
Another tour 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 Carib-Arawak traditions, despite years of adversity.
Heart of Travel tours this region with preliminary teachings that enhance the understanding of the Garifuna. Spanish language courses, which are part of the efforts, examine language differences, accents, and vocabulary correlated to the culture.
Language learning is equally important to Glass’s philosophy of travel. After receiving a master’s degree from Sacramento State, she is applying her knowledge base to dive deeper into the diversity within Spanish that existed 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 material that integrates culture. “The course is predominantly made up of pre-recorded videos and PDFs. However, there are also live calls with myself and other instructors,” says Glass. “The pre-recorded videos are not boring classroom videos; we allow people to travel virtually. Part of the learning is being able to visit people like Don José and other providers, such as the Garifuna community.”
Remarkably, Glass and her team are mixing cultural learning, experience, and language development as an inclusive package to the travel world. Heart of Travel is making an effort to provide depth to the travel experience with a far-reaching impact on the traveler and the lives of the people they visit.
Organizations like Heart of Travel recognize that travel can bridge cultures in a two-way exchange that benefits the traveler and the visited communities. While Glass’s efforts are focused on making the tours educational and rewarding for the visitors, to her, it’s vitally important the emphasis stays with the culture and livelihoods 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.