Francisco Vio Giacaman
Fellow Since 2008
Escuela de Guías de la Patagonia
This profile was prepared when Francisco Vio Giacaman was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2008.
Francisco Vio sees tourism as an opportunity for the Patagonian population to improve their quality of life, preserve their culture, and protect the environment. He founded the Patagonia School for Guides to combat the migration of young people from Patagonia and to help integrate tourism into local markets. Francisco’s Patagonia School trains youth to become some of the best guides in the world, and after graduation, supports them in establishing nature-oriented tourism businesses that benefit the community and are environmentally friendly.
The New Idea
Francisco empowers young people to value their cultural heritage and take advantage of new tourism markets through small businesses that are socially and environmentally responsible. Patagonia is a remote region that has traditionally been isolated from the rest of Chile. The newly booming tourism industry has helped integrate the region, but Patagonians have not benefited from this economic opportunity because their business infrastructure and their education systems are not considered skilled in this market. Francisco combats this divide through The Patagonia School for Guides, which not only trains students to be the most knowledgeable and qualified trip leaders, it also develops their business skills and connects them to a larger network so that they can successfully run their own eco-tourism enterprises and be agents of social change. Unlike most companies that recruit employees from outside Patagonia, the Patagonia School for Guides trains guides from Patagonia and is designed specifically for Patagonian tourism. No other certification program is as specific to the area, or trains as sufficiently. Francisco has designed a curriculum that educates students in the cultural, geological, and environmental history of the region, in addition to necessary skills such as first aid and low impact camping, and technical specializations such as rock climbing, kayaking, and skiing. But the curriculum is also a business development and leadership training program. Francisco’s goal is to create a network in which young people can lead their communities and collaborate with tourism-related entities such as national parks and citizen organizations (COs) to offset the social and environmental impacts of tourism. Francisco’s model reaffirms cultural identities by incorporating local culture into business models. Guides teach tourists about how their ancestors survived in Patagonia and tell them stories and legends, but they also cook traditional meals with food that is locally produced. By enabling the local economy to take advantage of tourism and by developing community assets, Francisco is interrupting the cycle of poverty that has led so many youth to migrate elsewhere in search of better futures. Francisco’s model is easily replicated and adjusted to other environmental and social contexts.
In recent years, tourist interest in the impoverished Patagonian region of Aysén has increased, but this area does not have the capacity to absorb the ever-growing demand. As a result, despite the potential for tourism to stimulate the local economy, the tourist market remains underdeveloped and Aysén continues to be a very depressed area. Patagonia has historically been cut off from the rest of Chile because it its geographic remoteness. In recent years, largely because of its natural resources and tourism, the region has been increasingly integrated but there continues to be little infrastructure to support the local population and to help them take advantage of new economic opportunities. Although there is some demand for local tourism, because the tourist season takes place over a short summer and communities are not organized around this market, it has been very difficult to integrate the greater tourist industry into local economies. As a result, Aysén’s inhabitants benefit little from the tourist industry, which remains out of reach. Due to the absence of an established education system or a business sector, most Patagonians have only a primary school education and are considered unqualified for skilled labor. Consequently, new businesses are hiring foreigners or workers from other parts of Chile. The local population can only find employment as manual laborers in areas such as construction, maintenance, and animal care. These jobs pay little and offer no opportunity for professional development. Moreover, there are very few available, so unemployment among the Aysén population remains high. Although some small locally run businesses do exist, they compete heavily with each other, so it is difficult to build a local business network for young entrepreneurs that can compete with larger tourist companies. Young people see no future for themselves in Aysén and are leaving in greater numbers in search of employment and education opportunities elsewhere. These youth feel disconnected from their home communities because there seems to be no way out of the cycle of poverty. Given their vast knowledge about Patagonia, however, local communities are best suited to develop solutions for balancing tourism and its environmental and social impact. However, their expertise is not valued, so they are not included in the industry and therefore have little control over its development. Local knowledge is also being depleted as more and more of Aysén’s population migrates elsewhere in search of better opportunities. Visitors, therefore, have few opportunities to engage with the local population and to learn firsthand about the region’s history and culture. If tourists are informed about these issues, information is usually imparted by a third party who has little understanding of the local culture and its close connection with the environment.
Realizing that most of Aysén’s inhabitants had no input on the growing demand for tourism, Francisco founded the Patagonia School for Guides in 2003, which aims to train the best guides in the region. Francisco has developed a curriculum that brings together various regional actors such as COs, national parks, and universities so that students can work with them to found small businesses based on nature and tourism. The school works mostly with youth because Francisco believes that engaging young people is the most strategic way to combat poverty and exclusion from the tourism industry. The Patagonia School for Guides began by recruiting residents such as farmers, fisherman, and artisans to participate in a two-year training program in late 2003. Since then, the school has developed twenty-two courses that combine traditional learning methods in the classroom with experiential outdoor education. The school develops leadership and communication skills as well as essential guide skills like responsible camping, tourist psychology, and first aid. Students are taught about cultural and environmental history including geology, Patagonian culture and biodiversity. They also specialize in areas such as mountaineering, fly-fishing, climbing, horsemanship, rafting, and skiing. Francisco’s curriculum empowers young Patagonians to become leaders in their communities as well as experts in tourism and the environment. The guides reaffirm their identities by teaching tourists about how their ancestors survived in the region, sharing stories and legends, and cooking with local foods. By establishing a reputation as the best guides in Patagonia, Francisco has created a brand and these young people are setting the standard for other tourism companies. And unlike many companies, their business models empower the local population and are also environmentally sustainable.The Patagonia School for Guides continues supporting graduates as they transition into their careers. The curriculum focuses on building business skills and networks among students and partners so that students have the tools, resources, and support to start their own businesses after graduating. The school requires professional internships with its partners such as national parks, companies, or COs so that students have hands-on experience in protecting the environment. All students must complete a business plan focused on nature-based tourism prior to graduation. Francisco also established a program to provide entrepreneurial graduates with institutional support for their business ventures. This helps the Patagonia School for Guides maintain a network of students and partners, and ensures that graduate-run businesses are environmentally and socially responsible. Francisco’s model is easy to duplicate and his approach has influenced public policy and is being implemented in other parts of Chile. Because the tourism industry is so competitive, the Patagonia School for Guides must train people who are not only the best guides in the region, but also in the world. This is essential not only for positioning the Patagonian School for Guides amongst the top schools in Patagonia, but also for being credible to replicate it elsewhere. Because the Patagonia School is highly impactful, globally competitive, and enjoys a strong reputation, it can continue to compete in an increasingly larger market share. Currently education initiatives in Panguipulli and Puerto Natales are copying Francisco’s work, including the Catholic University of Villarrica. Francisco has partnered with several national institutions including the National Forest Alliance (CONAF), Guide Associations, and the National Tourism Service, among others. Francisco has assisted the National Institute of Standardization by helping draft policy on environmental tourism. His work focused on leveraging Chile’s natural resources to promote it as an international tourist destination while also positioning tourism as a tool for local economic growth. Francisco has also begun reaching out to organizations throughout Latin America to develop a Natural Activities Fair that will focus on tourism and community development. He is currently linked to organizations in Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, Ecuador, Argentina, and Costa Rica.
Francisco was born in Santiago, Chile in 1969 to a family that was heavily involved in social justice issues. After the 1973 military coup in Chile, his family was exiled to Argentina and later to England and Venezuela. When Francisco was ten years old, his family returned to Chile. An interest in the outdoors led him to join his school’s excursion club, which was the beginning of an ongoing passion for environmental protection. Francisco became involved in political issues and was Student Council President during Pinochet’s military dictatorship. During this time he witnessed the kidnapping of two leftwing intellectuals who were later killed by the State. This event led Francisco to move away from political circles and to focus more on nature. He began studying experiential education while working in a school as well as and in the Chilean Mountaineering Federation. Francisco also began organizing inter-school mountain climbing excursions to train young leaders to be mountaineering leaders, and his work was the first of its kind in Chile.In 1994 he accepted a scholarship from the Nols School to teach outdoor courses in Patagonia. He moved to Aysén, but also traveled to the United States, Mexico, and Chile to educate young people and park guides. He later began working with CONAF’s ‘Aysén Biodiversity Project’ to support environmental education. Around this time he founded and created the curriculum for the Patagonia School for Guides, which he continues to work on full-time from his home in Aysén.