Tourism is loosely regulated in Bolivia, and the quality of service provided can vary greatly between different regions of the country and between different providers.
One of the most common critiques of Salar de Uyuni tours is that the driver of your 4×4 was just that–mostly a driver and not much of an actual tour guide.
That common critique speaks volumes about the relative ease of individuals to launch a tourism agency or tourism business.
Despite the notable presence of seemingly informal tourist agencies, Bolivia has become much more conscious about the importance of tourism nationally in the last six to seven years, and has stepped up regulation of the industry.
Tourism Laws in Bolivia–What Do You Need to Know
The majority of tourism activities in Bolivia are governed nationally by the general law number 292, the “Bolivia awaits you” (Bolivia te espera) general law of tourism.
Other governing laws are left to Bolivia’s Departmentos to decide. Uyuni is located in the departamento of Potosí.
For those that are really curious to get into the legal text in Spanish, it’s available here online to read in its entirety.
For those who don’t want to spend their time middling through dry legalize, here are some of the important bits of information from the law.
Article 7–Rights of Tourists in Bolivia
I would really start reading here. Many of these are fairly boilerplate, but there’s one there are a few points that are worth highlighting and writing down in the back of your mind:
Exigir que los servicios turísticos cumplan en los términos, condiciones y precios ofertados, salvo caso fortuito debidamente justificado o fuerza mayor.
Demand that touristic services are rendered based on their offered terms, conditions and prices–in all cases except cases that are fortuitously justified or overwhelming in circumstance.
Formular quejas y reclamos referentes a los servicios turísticos recibidos ante las autoridades competentes.
Put together complaints and express grievances against the services received in front of the relevant authorities.
Denunciar ante autoridades competentes cualquier atropello contra su persona o sus bienes durante su estadía.
Lodge complaints in front of the relevant authorities in relation to any personal or property damage during your stay.
Recibir el reintegro o devolución de montos que resulten a su favor por incumplimientos injustificados en cuanto a las condiciones de prestación de los servicios.
Receive a reimbursement or a refund of money spent due to unjust failures to deliver promised services at their promised qualities.
Article 8–Responsibilities of Tourists in Bolivia
As for article 8, your obligations as a tourist, there is one that particularly stands out:
Respetar las manifestaciones culturales, populares, tradicionales y la forma de vida de la población.
Respect cultural, popular, traditional and “way-of-life” manifestations.
Now, manifestations has a few different translations and connotations from Spanish, and all of them could legitimately be at play here.
Obviously nobody is planning to go to Bolivia to disrespect their traditions, their holidays, etc.
However, manifestations is also a word that’s commonly used to refer to marches and protests, including roadblocks (bloqueos).
This could be important as it refers to a tourist’s dealings with any sort of roadblocks in the country, and whether they should have a right, or some sort of special privilege, to cross the roadblocks in order to continue their tourism or trips.
Some interpretations of this section could understand the law to dictate that a tourist should respect all blockades in Bolivia, as they are quite common, widely used, and are commonly thought to have even been started by Bolivia’s president Evo Morales in some circles.
Article 10–Obligations of Tourist Providers in Bolivia
Proporcionar a las autoridades competentes información clara, precisa, cierta, completa y oportuna respecto al ejercicio de sus actividades, que no sea estratégica y/o confidencial, conforme al Reglamento.
Present clear, precise, true, complete and timely information to the relevant authorities in respect to the exercise of your activities, and that they not be strategic and/or confidential according to the regulations.
Article 16–Tourism Sovereignty
Las empresas prestadoras de servicios turísticos extranjeras que operan o pretendan operar en territorio nacional, deberán contar con la autorización de la Autoridad Competente en Turismo o en su defecto establecer alianzas estratégicas con empresas bolivianas legalmente establecidas en Bolivia.
Foreign tourist agencies and companies that operate or purport to operate in Bolivian territory must have authorization from the relevant Tourism Authority, or in its absence, establish strategic alliances with legally establish Bolivian companies in Bolivia.
This one is very important, because it reflects the lack of international tourist companies that operate in Bolivia.
Most large companies that do operate internationally, and include Bolivia in their offerings, often will contract Bolivian tours or Bolivian legs of tours, to various degrees of success.
In particular respect to Uyuni, and the salt flats, it means that 99% of companies that do not have a full-time physical presence in Uyuni will outsource their tours to local agencies. And, unfortunately, many local agencies have very poor safety records.
To my knowledge, this is not something that you can necessarily “defend” against, based on the letter of the law, but it is something that you should know about, and be conscious about, to potentially avoid bad experiences on your tour.
It’s also worth noting here, that perhaps in harmony with this law, Chilean tour operators are prohibited from operating Salar de Uyuni salt flat tours. All Chilean companies that sell tours in Bolivia must hand-off the tours to a Bolivian operator.
Again, not necessarily a dealbreaker, but it definitely can be an unwelcome surprise for those not aware of the laws!
More Information on Tourism Laws and Regulations
If you need to go above and beyond, or find specific information about tourism laws in Bolivia, check the following resources: