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Last Updated: Thursday, 23 March 2006, 11:27 GMT
Bolivia finds hope in Jesuit treasures
By David Atkinson
In Bolivia

They are hanging the bunting out in Conception, the hub of Bolivia's new Missions Trail.

The Jesuit mission at Conception

As dusk settles across the main square, a virtuoso performance of traditional Baroque scores by local violin-toting teenagers accompanies the nightly Mass at the mission church, which was founded in 1708.

Outside a ragtag of photocopied signs around the remote jungle settlement proclaim an event to be held March 23-24 to bring the rich colonial heritage of the missions to the world's attention.

Until now, Bolivia's Jesuit missions had been all but forgotten, overgrown with jungle foliage and isolated from the outside world.

Indeed, with just 400,000 international tourist arrivals per year to Bolivia, the seven principal mission settlements - which form a trail strung out across Bolivia's eastern lowlands towards the Brazilian border, in the region known as Chiquitania - have traditionally been overlooked by even the backpackers.

Local tourism authorities hope that will all change, however, when the "Global launch of Jesuit Missions of Chiquitos" showcases the culture of the missions before an audience of invited dignitaries.

Beleaguered tourism

Jesuit missionaries brought Catholicism to Bolivia in the late 17th Century.

The elaborate churches they founded went on to become important centres of cultural learning with each church founding its own Baroque orchestra to accompany the Mass. Unesco inscribed the seven churches that currently form the Missions Trail as World Heritage Sites in 1990.

Today, while Jesuit Missions in Paraguay and Argentina have since fallen into disrepair, their Bolivian counterparts remain a vibrant cultural force, set against a frontier-town backdrop straight out of the 1986 Robert de Niro film, The Mission.

"The missions house rare musical instruments, musical scores, and priceless works of art," says Geoff Groesbeck, who runs the website Chiquitania.com, dedicated to the culture of the missions.

"They also train the next generation of local artists and artisans, who remain faithful to the music and carvings their ancestors produced centuries ago."

The biggest tourism initiative in recent years, the launch event has been conceived to restore confidence in Bolivia's fledgling tourism industry after the country was hit by massive social unrest and transport strikes in 2005.

Mike Bennett
The combination of rediscovered musical scores and a setting that takes you back in time is quite earth-shattering
Local councillor Mike Bennett
Bolivia's National Chamber of Commerce reported the tourism sector lost US$20m (11.5m) during the unrest in May and June last year, while agents in La Paz reported up to 80% cancellations in the immediate aftermath.

But can an influx of tourists to the missions bring credibility to beleaguered Bolivian tourism, just as the Jesuit missionaries hoped to bring salvation to the "heathen lands of South America" some 300 years earlier?

The new government led by Evo Morales, Bolivia's first indigenous president, elected by a popular mandate in December 2005, has brought relative calm to the country, but UK tour operators, at least, are reserving judgement.

'Still cheap'

In Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia's economic powerhouse city, the talk is of a tourism renaissance.

If the three to five-day Missions Trail tour, best accessed by jeep from Santa Cruz along dirt road, is a success, the potential knock-on effect could bring vital tourist greenbacks to a previously little-explored area.

The town of Porongo, located 27km (17 miles) north-west of Santa Cruz, is vying for its share with its own Jesuit-built mission church and baroque music school making it an ideal spot for day-trippers.

Until now, Bolivia's Jesuit missions had been all but forgotten

In this quest it has a secret weapon: its former "gringo" (foreign) mayor. Michael Bennett, a six-and-a-half foot (1.98m) native of Stoke-on-Trent, England, who gave up his job in mining to stand as a local councillor.

Mr Bennett subsequently served as mayor of Porongo from 2000 to 2003 before becoming a councillor in Santa Cruz for the Unity and Progress Movement (Mup).

"Bolivia is still cheap, unspoiled and has now got over the trauma of its new government, so in terms of tourism things can only improve," he explains as we survey his erstwhile domain, the rustic mission church looming over a serene town square surrounded by lush, tropical foliage.

"Whether this event will kick off international tourism, wait and see, but marketing this trail as a new world pilgrimage could make a real difference."

"The combination of rediscovered musical scores and a setting that takes you back in time is quite earth-shattering," says Mr Bennett, stopping to greet another former supporter with a friendly high-five.

"When Florilegium (a UK chamber orchestra) played in the church in Porongo I had tears in my eyes and a knot in my stomach."

He adds with a wink: "That's the magic of the missions."

Ecotourism on the rise in Bolivia
02 Sep 05 |  Americas
Country profile: Bolivia
22 Jan 06 |  Country profiles

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