The San Blas Kuna

The "Kuna" are the "Cuna": both spellings are used but the Kuna themselves are standardizing on the K. A majority of the Kuna indigenous group, numbering about 30,000, live in a semi-autonomous reserve along Panama's Caribbean coast (). This reserve, the Comarca de San Blas or "Kuna Yala," extends about 200 kilometers northeast to the Colombian border, and fifteen kilometers inland to the continental divide. Numerous coral islands provide living sites for the majority of some fifty Kuna communities. Preferred matrilocal residence is cited in the 1945comarca constitution as "the foundation of the communal organization" of Kuna society. Each Kuna village is governed by a congresso comprised of all adult males, with leadership elected by consensus. All village congressos are organized within a pan-comarca government, the Congresso General. Only Kuna may own land in San Blas, and new foreign businesses must have permission from the Congresso General.

Subsistence activities, migrant wage labor, and the commercialization of fishing, coconut trading, and textile production (of molas) provide Kuna sustenance. The local cash economy, including tourism services, continues to develop. The Kuna are "unique among tropical forest dwellers in Central America for their unusually well organized and cohesive society...[which] enables the Kuna to retain their cultural identity while confronting outside influences".

The newspaper headlines cited above create the impression that the Kuna are being invaded by tourists. In 1975 this was a reasonable prediction, if Panamanian government plans for massive tourism development in San Blas had been carried out. By 1987 tourism in San Blas was low-key and, most importantly, controlled by the Kuna themselves. In the intervening often turbulent years, the Kuna have evolved a strategy of tourism development using both "ethnic" and "ecological" emphases. It is "indigenous tourism": tourism based on the group's land and cultural identity and controlled from within by the group. The Kuna have chosen development assistance from the outside which complements local financial, political, and institutional factors and thus promotes the sustainability of new developments.

"Ethnic" tourism, the marketing of tourist attractions based on an indigenous population's way of life, was a very minor part of the Kuna economy by the 1940s and slowly grew in importance. Molas became popular souvenirs from Panama and the Canal Zone in the following decades. Visitors began to fly out to San Blas to experience Kuna life firsthand. Photos of Kuna women and their mola art became a staple in advertisements for PanPan-'s tourist trade. By the 1960s there were four tourist facilities in San Blas, one Kuna-owned, and the mola cooperative was being formed. This type of tourism "is a form of ethnic relations...where the very existence of the ethnic boundary creates the tourist attraction".

MacCannell has suggested that "when an ethnic group begins to sell an ethnic attraction, it ceases to evolve naturally. The group members begin to think of living representatives of an authentic way of life. Suddenly any change in life-style is not a mere question of practical utility but a weighty question which has economic and political implications for the entire group." In Kuna villages, congresso gatherings are held almost every evening. Life-style issues are often discussed in these meetings, but it would be easy "to exaggerate the struggles between the generations and the sexes or take them too seriously".

The nature of the ethnic tourism development, like ecological tourism, is concerned with boundaries. As Gamper has commented on MacCannell's thesis, "While the overt culture traits may indeed become 'museumized' for commercial reasons, the different processes that seem to be involved in generating and maintaining ethnic groups continue to operate." In Kuna tourism these processes have evolved around issues of territory, mola art, and tourist facilities.

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