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Social Impacts of Tourism in San Pedro de Atacama

An activity to use in a study abroad course

Curricular materials created for the 2013 SAIL seminar:

Mediterranean Trivium: Earth, Sea, & Culture in Italy

This activity was created for a January term study abroad course titled The Impacts of Mining and Tourism on Indigenous Peoples and the Environment in Northern Chile. In the activity, students find and analyze a variety of sources of information to develop estimates of the ecological impacts of tourism on local indigenous communities.

Use links or scroll down for:


Context of the Activity

  1. This activity will be used in the study abroad course The impacts of Mining and Tourism on Indigenous Peoples and the Environment in Northern Chile.  One of the goals of this course is to ask students to problematize the role of tourism and how it impacts native cultures and the environment.
  2. Students will have already started or completed an assignment to study the ecological impacts of tourism.
  3. To complete the activity students will have had to watch the documentary film Cannibal Tours by Dennis O’Rourke and it will be recommended that they read the essay “On the making of Cannibal Tours” by the same author. In addition, they will have spent several days in the village of San Pedro de Atacama conducting participant observation by visiting at least two or three tourist attractions in the village and keeping daily fieldnotes. Students must engage in at least three informal conversations with other tourists and if Spanish skill allows, they should also speak with a couple of natives. Students will also make detailed notes of a visit places like the artisanal market, the archaeological museum and examine two or three restaurant menus and to see if they fit the ‘stereotype’ they had of ‘Andean Culture’ before their visit to the village.


Updated May 03, 2016

Learning Goals

  • Students will understand that there is a stereotype about native peoples and places that influences what we look for as tourists and how the natives and the tourist industry respond to our stereotype.
  • Students will understand that the tourist industry creates socio-economic inequalities and serious ecological pressures on scarce resources such as water.
  • Students should be able to document in written form the world of appearances (what they think, pre-conceptions and stereotypes).
  • Students be able to contrast their first impressions with what they think after they dig beneath the surface.
Multidisciplinary analysis:
  • Students will be asked to make connections between their and other tourists’ stereotypes about what it means to be ‘Andean’.
  • Students will make connections between the social and ecological consequences that result from the efforts the tourist industry and the natives make to provide for these stereotypes.
Other skills:
  • Students will learn systematic documentation of field observations.
  • Students will learn some basic interviewing skills to talk with other tourists.
  • Students will learn to compare and contrast data from a variety of different sources (written, conversational, experiential, observational).


Updated May 03, 2016

Activity Summary

First students will watch the documentary film Cannibal Tours by Dennis O’Rourke (available free on Youtube). Documentary filmmaker Dennis O’Rourke is convinced that humans are not interested in reality or truth. He argues that we seek truth, which is our fantasy of it (just listen to the discourses of the tourists and the natives in Cannibal Tours). If we really want to understand the world in which we live, we must transcend simplicity and slogans and seek meaning in chaos and complexity. Students will have to write an essay responding to the following interconnected issues:

  1. How do we move past our own fantasies and emotions to understand the realities of people and places we visit? How do we see past appearances to understand the social problems that tourism brings to the community?
  2. How does the inequality between you, the tourist, and the native people of San Pedro affect your interactions with them? Film-maker Dennis O’Rourke argued that: “The promoted idea of tourism as ‘a dialogue between cultures’ is a myth; because there exists such an economic and cultural disparity between the protagonists, that all human encounter is inevitably distorted.” Read the attached anecdote (see the Resources section) O’Rourke shares about the process of making his documentary Cannibal Tours and reflect whether you think what O’Rourke describes for the case of Papua New Guinea (inequality between the observer and the observed distorting all interactions) is to some extent also happening (or not) in the relationship between natives and tourists interactions in San Pedro de Atacama.

Using the Activity in Another Course

If another faculty member would like to teach or modify this activity, they could do so successfully in the context of a course that is examining the relationship between the transnational tourist industry and native cultures and the environment around the world. Essential materials for this activity are the documentary film available at the url address provided below:



Students will give a 10-15 minute presentation to the group where they address at least two of the following issues:

  • What they thought about “Andean culture” before and after this activity.
  • Describe their and other tourists’ stereotypes of native peoples and the environment.
  • What efforts did they see natives and tourist industry making to meet these fantasies of Andean society and environment.
  • How does something that could be taken as ‘anecdotal’ as someone’s private fantasy, affect natural resources like water (ecology).
  • How does the commoditization of culture affect authenticity (anthropology).

After each student has presented, we will engage in a group discussion addressing major points.

Writing Assignment:

Students will write a 2-3 page single spaced essay on their understanding of Andean culture, tourism and the environment. They will detail their concerns regarding their needs as tourists and the needs of the natives and the environment. They will ask who pays the cost of tourism and who benefits from this industry. They will discuss their concerns and potential solutions. In sum, they will discuss ethical issues in the tourist industry they are experiencing in Atacama.

More specifically, a successful assignment completion will be assessed based on the following rubric:

  1. Identifies a social problem;
  2. Asks a question(s) that can be responded to with evidence;
  3. Provides evidence from a variety of source types and perspectives;
  4. Ideas are well organized and clearly written;
  5. Clearly establishes difference between own opinion and what the evidence says;
  6. Demonstrates curiosity and initiative in completing the assignment.
  7. Broadly speaking, we are assessing whether students were successful in describing the ethical complexities of the tourist experience.

Resources and Materials


For faculty interested in replicating this assignment, it is recommended that they read the essay titled, On The Making of Cannibal Tours by Dennis D’Rourke.

Cannibal Tours Anecdote

From “On the making of Cannibal Tours” by Dennis O’Rourke, pp. 15-16.

The following anecdote will (only obliquely, I hope) illuminate some of what I have been saying. When I was filming Cannibal Tours, I had to negotiate with the leaders of the various villages along the river and explain my film to them at a series of community meetings. This was made a little easier for me because I speak Melanesian Pidgin, and because I had a history of involvement with the Sepik Province going back to before Papua New Guinea achieved its independence. I had visited some of the villagers with Mr Michael Somare who was the first and long time Prime Minister of the country, and who is a Sepik chief.

Agreement to film was achieved easily and amicably at all places except for one village, Tambunam. This was the place where the redoubtable American anthropologist, Margaret Mead, had done a lot of her famous work. The villagers were angry, they told me that they resented how she had profited from them and that, despite promises, she had not even returned copies of her books. I promised, as I always do, to supply the village with copies of the finished film. Some of the younger men were distrustful and so, as a gesture of sincerity, I offered to provide them with several copies my other films about Papua New Guinea. The offer was accepted and I was told how useful the 16 videocassettes would be for showing in the community (the tourists also saw my other films – the tour operator had them on the ship and they were watched in the evenings as part of their itinerary).

A few weeks later, when I returned to the village of Tambunam with a different group of tourists, I was astounded when, as we were leaving the village, one of the tourists came up to me on the ship, proudly holding one of those videocassettes, saying: “Guess what! A young man was selling your films and I bargained him down from fifty to twenty Kina!”

Collaborating partner(s)
Anita Carrasco
Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Luther College
Beth Lynch
Associate Professor of Biology, Luther College
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