Cusco and the dangers of tourism

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A local girl fights to bring a lamb over for a tourist photo. The streets of Cusco are lined with women and girls who pose for photos in traditional costume with their animals for money.

During our first taxi ride in Cusco, we asked the driver what drove the city’s economy. “Tourism,” was his first and definite answer. “Are there any other things?” we asked out of curiosity. “Mmm…” There was a long pause before he answered, “Culture. We have culture.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him that culture probably also fell under the category of tourism.

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A guide explains the construction of the Saqsaywaman ruins to his tour group. The primary source of income for most people in Cusco seems to be tourism.

One of the dangers of tourism is that when it’s the main economic driver bringing money into your city*, it needs to somehow employ everyone. Yes, there are the people who keep the city running in the day to day, but all of the best-paying jobs are tourism related: hotel staff, tour agents, travel guides, shopkeepers selling souvenirs. And when those jobs are saturated, people find other ways to take part in the tourism economy. There are the llama ladies on the streets of Cusco, dressed in traditional attire and toting their pet llamas. They’ll invite you to take a picture and then demand payment. There are the wandering art sellers, toting their portfolios and approaching tourists, asking them to buy a piece and support their attendance at an art school. And there are the folks dressed as Incan warriors hanging out along Calle Hatumrumiyoc, “guarding” the stone wall here that was once part of an Incan palace and insisting on payment for photos.

The logic is simple. Tourists have money, and they’ll pay me. And doing this pays better than another job I can get.

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A vendor poses with his wares at one of the archaeological sites near Cuscuo. I paid him $1.25 USD for this photo. He will likely make more money selling souvenirs to tourists than as a farmer or local market vendor.

In the high season, there are plenty of tourists around and things are probably pretty good. But in the low season, the people here get more desperate. Sweet invitations turned into shouts and frowns when we declined to take photos of some of the llama ladies. We were offered tours and massages from about twenty different people a day. Art vendors practically begged us to buy something. Again, the logic was simple: times are hard. You have money. You can (and should) give some to me.

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Slow day: in the low season, fewer people come to Cusco and there’s less tourism money to go around. The vendors, tour sellers, and costumed women get more desperate.

And while that logic might be simple, it can make visiting Cusco as a traveller, especially one with little money, feel pretty bad. It’s the constant being sold to, the commercialization of every aspect of the place, the insistence that you must spend, spend, spend to experience and enjoy.

But what the people of Cusco are doing isn’t wrong, either. They’re simply trying to make money to survive, to save, and to take care of their families. To exclude them from the tourism economy is to deny them a better life.

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A woman walks by signs taped up by protesters.

But that exclusion soon might be coming to all of Cusco. The second major danger of tourism as your only economy is that the flow of tourists might stop entirely. This could happen because the global economy dips and fewer people have money to travel. It might also happen if the reason tourists visit disappears or gets destroyed (though this one is less likely). And it can also happen when tourists find a more convenient route to get to what they want to see that doesn’t involve you.

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Signs protesting the construction of the new international airport in Chinchero. Once completed, tourists will no longer need to fly to Lima or Cusco to reach Machu Picchu, the country’s most popular tourist destination.

When we went out earlier, we saw signs plastered around Plaza de Armas in protest and several people scrawling more with black pens on white poster paper. They were protesting the construction of an international airport in the nearby town of Chinchero. Approved in 2012, the plan would create a travel hub closer to Machu Picchu with more capacity to receive tourists. It would also enable tourists to see the ruins without having to visit Cusco at all, and the people here know that’s bad news for the biggest employer in town.

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A man stands at the edge of an Andean vista outside of Cusco. How the city would change from a sudden drop in tourism remains unknown.

Footnotes:

*Frustratingly, I couldn’t find much hard data on the size of Cusco’s tourism industry (in dollars or empoyment).

According to Wikipedia, Cusco’s tourism industry was worth $2.47 billion USD in 2009. Considering that the Cusco region (not just the city) accounted for 4.4% of Peru’s GDP, we can use Peru’s GDP of around $190 billion to figure out that Cusco’s region accounted for $8.4 billion. After this we get kind of stuck, since we’re not sure how much Cusco the city accounts for GDP in the region, but let’s say 50% because it has about 1/3 of the region’s population and as a city it’s going to have a pretty big economic footprint. So that means Cusco the city has a GDP of $4.2 billion.

Assuming tourism hasn’t drastically fallen since 2009 (according to various sources, it’s only increasing), then tourism accounts for at least $2.47 billion of Cusco’s $4.2 billion GDP, meaning it makes up 59% of the city’s GDP. While that doesn’t equate to employment, that does suggest there are a lot of incomes in Cusco that are dependent on tourism.

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