01-IMG_7524 North of Whangarei, at the crossroads of the 1 and 11 highways, sits a town of 1400 people.Passing through it looks to be like any other small town in New Zealand, its single main street littered with bakeries, coffee shops, and art galleries. In other, unfortunate ways, it shares an economic outlook with other small towns in New Zealand’s ongoing thread of “dying towns”. Kawakawa and other towns like it in the Northland and across the south of the north island are collectively suffering from declining populations, increased unemployment, and decreased income. An interesting article on the topic can be found here.

The visible symptoms of this are loitering, downcast people and clearly shuttered businesses with no sign of being replaced. One sushi shop we saw had been closed for years, yet the sign and posters for it were still up. Kawakawa is a one street example of the growing inequality in New Zealand and around the world. The coffeeshops on the street are filled with people purchasing Starbucks-priced drinks and snacks, while outside, near the social services building and the thriftshop, stand a group of people who have nothing to do and are clearly unhappy about it. As with many other countries, it is the minorities and indegenous people who are hit the hardest by this growing inequality. That they are not better positioned across New Zealand society speaks to a long-standing divide, one which is actually less prevalent in New Zealand than in other countries, but is still strikingly large.

For Kawakawa, one of the main causes of downturn was the close of the nearby coalmines. Original built as a service town, the mine closure led to high unemployment. Without the beaches and summer getaways that define the surrounding larger towns, KawaKawa has not had an easy time. Today the primary output is agricultural, with a high employment count in the social services and healthcare field.


Kawakawa does have some interesting features for a traveller. Every town in New Zealand has a set of public toilets, or so it seemed, and Kawakawa’s was particularly striking, designed by Friedensreich Hundertwasser, an Austrian designer who lived in the town for twenty five years. Its vibrant colors and amorphous patterns lend it to feeling half colorful tavern, half art exhibit. While it is a commonly used and fully functioning toilet, it is also not uncommon for people to pop in just to take pictures.

As we strolled up and down the main drive, we found an art gallery focusing on Maori artists. Much of the work involved carved wood, statues incorporating natural material, or paintings of human or natural scenes. The Maori tradition involves intricate and ornate carvings on objects as small as a dime to as ones as large as trees. I found the iron-and-wood statues particularly moving, but like many art galleries, this one was out of our price and carrying range.

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On the way out of town we stopped at a beach 30 or so minutes to the north to beachcomb, one of our favorite activities. Since we didn’t want to take our find out of the beach environment, we took a few pictures.


Cusco and the dangers of tourism

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


*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.

Scenes from Quito in the dusk of 2016

Birds flock over the Plaza San Francisco in Quito, Ecuador.

Set high in the mountains, Quito was a sharp contrast from our experiences in Colombia. People were friendly, but more withdrawn and less cheerful. Markets were busy, but not bustling. Streets and thoroughfares were sometimes entirely empty. The whole city was still beautiful but it felt subdued and almost somber, as if the energy had been drained from its inhabitants.

The likely culprit behind this is economic depression. Since 2002 more than 40% of Ecuador’s export revenue had come from crude petroleum and it was one of the few exports keeping Ecuador’s international import-export balance in the green. During the boom years, as oil surpassed $100 per barrel, Ecuador brought in billions of dollars that it used to finance social projects throughout the country. Then in 2014 the price of oil crashed to $50 a barrel, collapsing in in January 2016 to a mere $30 a barrel. The oil revenues dried up, government spending slowed, and unemployment rose. The U.S. dollar (Ecuador’s official currency) also gained in value, further slowing Ecuador’s economy .

Couple these problems with a devastating earthquake that hit the north-west region of the country in April, killing nearly 700 people and and injuring a further 16,000, and the atmosphere of subdued worry makes sense. It’s been a bad year for Ecuador.

Below are photo from our visit to Quito during the end of December, in the dusk of 2016:


A view of El Panecillo from a street near the history city center.
Men wait for a shoe shining at La Plaza de la Independencia.


The statue of the Virgin that overlooks the city on El Panecillo. 
The view of the Basilica de Voto Nacional from El Panecillo.
View of hillside neighborhoods of Quito from El Panecillo.
A view from the top floor of El Centro Commercial Espiral.

As in previous countries, we met so many wonderful and brilliant people here in Quito that we can’t help but root for Ecuador. The Ecuadoreans are resilient and they’ll recover, but it will take time.