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Can Tourism Be Sustainable?

With Machu Picchu literally sinking into the ground, Peru looks for authentic, eco-friendly ways to grow its travel sector.
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It was an adventure getting to Veinte de Enero. From Lima, Peru's capital, it was a two-hour flight to Iquitos, a jungle-locked city of 600,000 people whose streets buzz with "mosquitoes," or motorcycles rigged with wagons to carry passengers. From there, it was another two hours in a taxi that had one main peril — its driver, who may not have had as great a need for the religious icons that swayed from his rearview mirror if he'd slowed down and stayed in his lane. Then the fun began.

A narrow wooden boat partly covered by a thatched roof and powered by a 15 horsepower engine idled on the shore. I climbed aboard along with my guide, Freddy, and we glided up the river, deeper into the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve, a 7,700-square-mile protected wilderness in the Amazon watershed. Lightning traced geometrical angles in a black storm that spread across the sky like an oil spill. Fireflies flashed in the jungle. The villages got smaller, and the river narrowed.

There was a susurrus in the water.

"Dolphins," Freddy explained, referring to the river dolphins that inhabit these waters. Scientists believe they are born gray, but the males fight until scar tissue forms over their entire bodies, leaving them luminously pink. The dolphins suffer more than scarring, though, from the belief that they can take human form to kidnap people. Because of that myth, and because dolphins destroy fishing nets, the dolphins — even though endangered — are prey for locals' machetes.

"What about piranhas?" I asked.

"They taste good, but they have a lot of bones," Freddy said.

"I meant, are they dangerous?"

Piranhas, it turned out, are a terror only for tourists. Locals' deeper fears were for the carnero, a parasite that travels up the urethra into the bladder. "If it goes into you, sorry, you die!" Freddy said in his characteristically cheerful way.

Two hours later, we had gone through bags of banana chips con queso and peach juice boxes and arrived in Veinte de Enero, a settlement officially established as a logging station on Jan. 20, 1997. It now serves as home to 36 families.

Several years ago, Veinte de Enero and two conservation-oriented nongovernmental organizations formed the Road to El Dorado Project, which makes arrangements needed for visitors to see life in the jungle. The project is in step with the newest thinking on ecotourism in the developing world, community-based tourism, which tries to satisfy two needs at once: the demands of travelers for more direct and authentic encounters with local people and the desire of local communities to reap a greater share of tourism's profits.


Once known mainly as a backpacker destination, Peru has a travel industry that is still relatively new, blossoming only in the last 20 years and exuding optimism about its future. The country's infrastructure has good bones, with modern telecommunications and banking systems, and democracy is stable. You can get around easily enough, and you can drink the water in hotels.

Machu Picchu, the so-called Lost City of the Incas, is the biggest draw, with more than 850,000 visitors last year (compared to fewer than 10,000 in 1992). But Machu Picchu is literally sinking under the burden, and Peru wants to spread the tourism largesse. Through media campaigns and outreach to tour operators, the country is promoting the Amazon in the north, the soaring mountains of the Huaraz region, and a long coastline popular with surfers and beach bums. It has piloted a variety of ecotourism projects and tried several tourism models, including varieties of "voluntourism."

But going forward, many Peruvians want to avoid mistakes of earlier tourism development. Recent attempts at responsible tourism — here and elsewhere — have shown that it can work to preserve the environment and lift people out of poverty, perhaps more efficiently than any other industry. Still, the proverbial road to ecotourism's version of El Dorado — the legendary city of gold Spanish explorers believed they'd find in the Americas — is potted with obstacles and blocked by multinational tourism enterprises that benefit enormously from mass marketing and little, if at all, from attempts to protect cultural authenticity or nature.

Veinte de Enero consists of a clearing in the jungle on a tributary of the Amazon River in northern Peru; it has about two dozen thatched huts, built on stilts that protect them during the rainy season. Set in a secluded niche just off the main compound is a guest lodge with a kitchen, indoor plumbing and two bedrooms with bunk beds curtained in mosquito netting. Veinte de Enero does not offer costumed dancers or scheduled activities for visitors. The food we ate was simple, though certainly fresh: In the morning, a chicken's neck was wrung, and it was carried, still unplucked, across the compound. Insects, frogs and birds supplied audio entertainment.

During our tour, we watched a demonstration of a wooden contraption that worked like a mobile ladder to quickly scale massive palm trees. We tried it ourselves. Introduced by the community's conservation-oriented NGO partner, Pronaturaleza, the device allows locals to harvest the palm fruit without cutting down trees. Over two days, we also boarded a canoe, braving a torrent in the dark to look for alligators, and rode four hours farther downriver to a village of 80 people called Yarina. There, we followed a machete-wielding 20-year-old as he hacked a path into the jungle. In the soaring canopy, monkeys picnicked on hearts of palm. On the muddy forest floor, two iguanas skirted past. Freddy let termites crawl over his hands and arms, then rubbed them into his skin like a lotion. "Insect repellent," he said.

In addition to its small-scale tourism endeavor, Yarina had a nascent turtle business, which I got to see courtesy of Rafael Layche, the 50-year-old manager. Fifteen years ago, the turtle population was depleted. The region had two indigenous, and threatened, species, the Tarikaya, which grows to about 10 inches in length, and the Charapa, which grows to more than 2 feet. In 2001, Pronaturaleza helped start the "Turtle Project," showing villagers how to find turtle eggs on the beach and nurture them in artificial, enclosed beaches. In 2007, Yarina got government permission to sell 40 percent of its yield of the smaller Tarikaya turtles. Each of the 1,300 turtles will fetch about $2, with about half of them sold in advance to a Chinese company.

In another kind of economic activity, each household in Veinte de Enero has a table of handcrafts, including necklaces and bracelets of beads, alligator teeth and hardened seeds from a palm tree, all carved and painted. Given the average number of tourists passing through, though — four to six people about twice a month for the six months of the dry season — it couldn't be much of a business.

Blessa Veronica (middle) and two friends in the village of Yarina. (Todd Pitock)

Blessa Veronica (middle) and two friends in the village of Yarina. (Todd Pitock)

The children of the settlement seemed delighted by visitors. Three who had shadowed us as we toured now climbed into a hammock and invited me to take their photo. The ringleader was Blessa Veronica. She had a gap-toothed smile and showed me five fingers and a thumb to indicate her age.

She followed us to the riverbank, and as the boat pulled off the shore, I said, "Gracias!'

"T'ank you!" she called back.

Whatever the associations of tourism with light fun, the economic stakes are, in fact, very high. Overall estimates of the industry's size ranges from just under $6 trillion to as much as $9.3 trillion, the fourth largest after oil, chemicals and automobiles. It employs almost 240 million people, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council. Some 900 million people traveled outside their own countries last year, a 6 percent increase from the prior year, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization. (In the United States alone, tourism generates receipts of $3 billion a day.) Globalization, the Internet, the growing affluence of Russians, Chinese and others in emerging markets, and the generally low cost of travel have made tourism one of the world's fastest-growing industries.

The impacts of tourism also reach across a wide swath of global issues, from development to climate change to community health care and beyond. "You can't really do anything in a touristic sense without affecting a whole complex system," observed Christina Heyniger, president of Xola Consulting Inc., a Santa Fe, N.M., consulting and research firm specializing in adventure tourism.

2009 Adventure Tourism Rankings

The Adventure Travel Trade Association and the International Institute of Tourism Studies at The George Washington University released their annual Adventure Tourism Development Index, a joint project that ranks countries according to their potential as adventure/nature travel destinations. Click he link below to learn who makes the Top 10.
"Which Countries Rank Highest in Adventure?"


Traditionally, tourism has been managed in a way that makes some observers wonder how the planet survives it. With its cruise ships, mega-resorts, tourism zones and chain hotels, traditional "big" tourism, critics say, consumes too much water and energy and generates too much waste and pollution. It despoils heritage sites, wilderness areas, beaches and cities. The seemingly innocuous game of golf has been blamed for land grabs that have displaced communities and even forced outright evacuations. In 2001, Pope John Paul II, an inveterate traveler, called tourism "exploitive," blaming tourist villages in particular for turning "culture, religious ceremonies and ethnic festivities into consumer goods."

In the developing world, tourism jobs are often poorly paid. Management positions go to English-speakers — which is to say foreigners or people from privileged classes. All-inclusive resorts seal in revenue by providing guests with everything they need on campus. A taxi driver I met in Jamaica called his country's tourism industry "a form of apartheid." The riches concentrated in few hands often don't wind up in local economies but are exported offshore. Analysts call the phenomenon "leakage."

Where tourism fails to benefit local people, the blowback comes in many forms — among them crime, poaching and political insecurity, which can include even the direct targeting of tourists, who come to be seen as agents of unwanted change.

One response to the negative side effects of traditional tourism has been ecotourism, a somewhat muddled, catchall term for practices based on responsible environmental policy and respect for people, culture and heritage. For ecotourism proponents, the reasons to nurture it are clear; they include the need to address climate change and to preserve the world's cultural diversity in the face of overwhelming forces pushing for global standardization. In the developing world, the ecotourism mandate also focuses on improving living standards for people in the host country.

"The biggest problem in the world today is poverty," said Tito Alarcon Rodriguez, manager of the Cusco-based Destination Management Organization, a nonprofit that coordinates projects between communities, tour operators and the government in Peru. "Tourism is the best tool we have to lift people out of poverty the quickest."

Not everyone is enamored of the term ecotourism. Does it describe a value system or an itinerary? Is it a movement or a marketing tool? "Most people assume 'ecotourism' means doing something positive for nature, but there's a big difference between nature tourism and ecotourism," said Jeremy Clubb, sales manager at Class Adventure Travel in Lima. "Nature tourism is going to a lodge in a jungle. But a place might be branding itself as an ecotourism experience, when, in fact, [its] environmental imprint might be quite damaging."

Jonathan Tourtellot, director of the National Geographic Society's Center for Sustainable Destinations, coined and prefers the term "geotourism."

"The original idea was to use tourism in a way to create an incentive to protect what tourists were coming to see, in this case nature. Then the idea of sustainable tourism, tourism that promoted good environmental stewardship, came after the Rio Summit [on environment and development]," says Tourtellot, who also serves as an editor of National Geographic Traveler, the Society's consumer travel magazine. "But there is more to it than that."

When explaining his concept of geotourism, Tourtellot speaks of "stewardship of place," meaning the preservation of essential character. He ticks off the list of threats to that character, including climate change and irresponsible development. "Globalization in particular has a tendency to promote generica in every respect and environment. With geotourism, we're talking about natural habitats, historical buildings, living culture, tradition, cuisine," Tourtellot says. "We'd like to see everything measured against the definition."

Whatever you call the change occurring in tourism practices, a trend is clear. "There is a shift in global responsibility. People want to avoid doing harm during their trips," said Kristin Lamoureux, director of the International Institute of Tourism Studies at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. "In the last decade, we've also seen a shift toward a more authentic experience, some aspects of more experiential learning, having an experience that's more than just sun and sand."

The travel continuum runs from people who are comfortable with what's familiar to those who specifically want the unconventional. And the latter are looking farther afield.

"The appetite for this is absolutely growing," said Geoff Manchester, the co-founder of Intrepid Travel, an Australia-based company that specializes in what it calls "real life experiences" throughout Asia. For Intrepid tours, clients stay at family- or locally owned and operated lodges and travel via public transportation. Intrepid started with two Thai travel itineraries in 1989. It now has more than 500, with 70,000 clients and a compound annual growth rate of 40 percent.

For all the passion nature and adventure itineraries generate, though, the sector remains a tiny piece of the market — about $50 billion of the multitrillion-dollar total. And when you talk to some operators about future prospects, they describe a David vs. Goliath scenario.

Rozana Paredes and Maria Elena Lau Soria opened the Grupo-Tambo Travel Agency in 2005 to specialize in community-based tourism in Peru. When I met them in Iquitos over a meal of local delicacies — ceviche and alligator — they described a veritable jungle of obstacles blocking the development of community-based tourism in Pacaya Samiria. "They are the only community-based tourism activity in the region," Paredes said. "The big tour operators aren't interested in them. The operational costs are high, and the volume of visitors is low. The reserve and the communities themselves limit the number of visitors to keep their impact low."

Even though tours of the area don't generate much revenue, the cost per traveler is relatively high. My visit, for example, cost about $400 for two days just for the jungle experience — slightly more than commercial lodges, even though the latter offer higher-quality amenities. But the lodges can sleep dozens of people at a time, while community projects can take only a handful and are not, therefore, much of a prospect for commercial outfitters.

"Ten travel agencies control the lion's share of the region's tourism business," Paredes said. "They send tourists to lodges and cruises. They've been operating here for 40 years. In the last five, they have started giving better jobs. But the money has been kept in a few hands, like in any Third World country."

Cultural issues also complicate transactions between the cosmopolites of the tourist trade and people who live in jungle settlements. When tour operators come in, Paredes said, they give instructions and expect them to be carried out. But that's not the way things are done in the jungle.

"We have to treat them with respect," she said. "Sometimes that means they want to do something their way, even if we know it isn't the best way."

The reserve itself — the attraction a tourist wants to see — also imposes limitations. Keeping it pristine requires heavy regulation that operators developing itineraries in other spaces don't face. Moreover, the communities lack essentials — including reliable Internet access, language skills and marketing savvy — needed to reach clients directly.

Paredes' goals are modest. "It would be good if we could grow to three or four people three times a week," she said. I asked her why she persisted.

"We are local," she said. "We love this place. Maybe right now we are not making money. We all have to grow. We have to learn. Tourism is the most democratic economic activity. It is still the activity where we can distribute the money."

But this effort at sustainable tourism faces such large challenges that I wondered if Paredes' agency could ever be viable. At a time when Internet marketing is as essential to a travel agency as a telephone, Paredes' firm wasn't generating enough revenue to maintain a website.

There are success stories in community-based tourism, and they seem to have at least one of two features: a philanthropic element or a connection to larger travel programs.

One model for socially conscious tourism, "voluntourism," has travelers donate their time and expertise; in turn, they receive access to people and places that add up to a unique and fulfilling experience.

Dave Aabo first came to Peru as a Peace Corps worker. A passionate surfer, Aabo started a nonprofit, Waves for Development, that brings surfers to the Peruvian coast, where famously great waves have produced generations of great surfers, starting with the indigenous Moche people, who are said to have invented wave riding. Aabo asks visitors to engage communities by volunteering to work or teach in them. "We stay with local host families. They're compensated for that," Aabo told me. "There's a rotation set up for that to spread the benefits between families."

Brian Morgan, who founded Adventure Life, has offered community-based tourism experiences since he started his Montana-based outfitting firm in 1999. But he can offer them because Adventure Life has never been a stand-alone entity. "When I created my first tours, I wanted to empower a local community and work with them," Morgan recalled. "That's as 'eco' as you can get. It's the local community that needs to protect and conserve the area, and it's not my role to tell them how to do it."

In Guatemala, Morgan found a village of 20 families that didn't have any particular tourist attraction but wanted visitors. The families had invested in their homes and installed indoor plumbing. Morgan put together a cultural program that showed tourists local weavings and markets. "I had to explain what it was about to tour operators," he said, and he had to adapt, even if that meant scaling back. "Over time, the program changed. Now it's part of other itineraries, but instead of two nights, it's one night. One night is comfortable and enriching, but people want to see other things, too. ...

"You can't lose sight of the fact that people want to go on vacation. Very few want purely an educational experience."

He counted his efforts as a success, even if it is a small share of his client base. "I do it because I believe in it," he said.

But Morgan's motives are not purely idealistic. The program provides his business indirect benefits. "It also gives me a particular place in the marketplace," he said. "It shows that we not only offer the standard highlights but are concerned about and willing to offer more culturally intense programs."

Even if ecotourism, geo-tourism and their relatives constitute a niche market, some ecotourism principles have percolated up the food chain to larger hotel and resort companies that have created programs that allow them to partner with local communities. In 2008, Ritz-Carlton launched Give Back Getaways, which lets hotel and resort guests sign up and participate in a volunteer experience. "You don't think of Ritz Carlton as being the type of market [in which] tourists want to go out and volunteer, but it's working because it turns out their clients are used to working in philanthropy," GWU's Lamoureax said. "Some people might be more willing to go off into the boonies if they feel safe and clean and know they'll have something to eat."

In Lamoureax's estimation, smaller players can benefit from the heft larger operations provide. "The reality is that most small-scale tourism projects don't have sufficient draw to attract a market," Lamoureax said. "You might have a great community-based tourism product, but it's not enough to get someone to fly from New York to the Philippines. We need to let go of the notion that all mass tourism is bad. Instead, we should look at how to leverage mass tourism to benefit smaller operations."

Fairmont Hotels & Resorts' environmental programs and partnerships started with its employees, who, in company surveys, listed environmentally sound policies as something that mattered. Fairmont's corporate policy is to source all of its products locally. At the Fairmont Mayakoba on Mexico's Maya Riviera, the Canada-based company partners with the World Heritage Alliance for Sustainable Tourism, which supports conservation, sustainable tourism and economic development for communities in and around UNESCO World Heritage sites. That effort includes purchasing local lobster and honey for use at the resort.

"We went to a local Mayan community and provided them with training on how to set up a tour company, how to serve food and present food to participants who wanted to have a boat tour," said Sarah Dayboll, Fairmont's head of environmental affairs. "In the first year, we sold 20 packages, and the locals running them are self-sufficient now."

Although cost-cutting wasn't a motive for the local partnership, it was a welcome side effect. By buying locally, the company saves on shipping, freight and emissions. "And we're giving back to the community," Dayboll said.

Scandinavia's Rezidor Hotel Group (which includes the Radisson Blu and Regent hotels) operates in 58 countries in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Scandinavia has long had green laws on the books, and Rezidor is heavily invested in the principles of responsible tourism. Starting in 2008, the company committed to put all of its 30,000 employees through training on social, ethical and environmental responsibility.

Rezidor's Radisson Blu hotel in El Quseir, Egypt, sponsors group weddings for locals who can't afford their own. The deal is simple: The hotel will pick up the costs for the weddings, but hotel guests must be allowed to attend. The Red Sea resort built a development center where guests can get involved in local music and cooking, and teach language and information technology to local residents. Given that Red Sea resorts have been terrorism targets, promoting programs that help tourists and locals see their common humanity isn't just a nice idea but a component of a common-sense security policy.

After my Amazon experience, I hopscotched south by plane, taxi and train to Cusco, through the Sacred Valley and on to Aguas Calientes, the tourist town that serves as the staging ground for Machu Picchu. The great Inca city lay buried atop a 9,000-foot-high Andean mountain for almost four centuries, between the Spanish Conquest and the city's discovery by Yale archeologist Hiram Bingham in 1911.

Tourism has shown that the architecture of Machu Picchu is not indestructable. (wikimedia)

Tourism has shown that the architecture of Machu Picchu is not indestructable. (wikimedia)

Now, new conquistadors — armed with cameras and video recorders — follow leaders carrying red umbrellas. Despite the assault by tourist hordes, Machu Picchu is awe-inspiring, still one of those places to see before you die. The complex of stone steps up the mountain, with plunging cliffs to the sides. My guide, a 27-year-old tourism student named Sandra, walked me through the homes of royals and aristocrats — places where knowledge of astronomy, architecture and agriculture was transmitted through generations, without a written alphabet.

The Incas were master masons, stacking stones that weighed tons — a feat every bit equal to, and far more functional, than Egypt's pyramids. Even today the stones are perfectly aligned and, without any mortar, fit so tightly that it's impossible to push a penny between blocks. Every inch of Machu Picchu was conceived of and constructed for a purpose, down to the trapezoidal shapes of windows and the slight angle of walls that give buildings the stability to withstand earthquakes.

Yet, it has been tourism, of all things, that has shown the architecture is not indestructible. Barely 100 years since it was unearthed, Machu Picchu is literally sinking into the ground under the unrelenting weight of foot traffic. Possible solutions include a drastic one: stopping people from walking on the complex at all.

Machu Picchu is cause for much hand-wringing for Alarcon, of Destination Management Organization. We met at his office in Cusco. A bespectacled man with a full, dark mustache, Alarcon spoke of Machu Picchu with a despairing expression that hung like one of the heavy alpaca sweaters Cusco is famous for producing.

"Machu Picchu was handled very badly," he said. "It is generating huge revenue. It is accepting 800,000 visitors, which means $80 million just in ticket sales. That doesn't count the trains or hotels. The bus from Aguas Calientes costs $14 for a short ride, and almost everyone takes it. There is only one access point, and it is only open during the day. We should open it during the evening and limit the number of visitors that are up there at any one time. That would spread the weight load.

"If you don't have planning, you will have a risk of impact on archeological sites. Where is the money going? To a bureaucracy in Lima? The truth is, we don't know. There needs to be a central authority, a ministry of some sort, which we do not have, to coordinate this chaos."

As rain fell outside, he worried about Aguas Calientes, the town alongside Machu Picchu. "It was never planned," he said. "There are no standards for hygiene in restaurants or hotels. Nothing is regulated or enforced. Garbage is contaminating the river. It's like the Wild West; people just come and build. It is at risk of a real disaster."

How so?

"Landslides," he said. "There are boulders the size of buildings. I don't know if it'll happen in one year or five years, but it will happen."

Supported by Swiss Contact, the Swiss international development aid organization, DMO coordinates between communities and tour operators, hosting familiarization trips for travel agents, promoting media campaigns, and working with five Peruvian NGOs and 60 local communities. "The market is there. There is a new kind of traveler. We call them 'lovers.' They want beauty, culture, preservation. They can afford a five-star [hotel], but they also want to have contact with communities," he said. "The communities want them, too. Everyone can grow from the exchange."

This part of Peru is a three-day destination for most tourists — a day each in Cusco, the Sacred Valley that is often considered to be the center of the Inca empire, and Machu Picchu. "We can add a fourth day through these community-based tourism projects. There is space here," he said, "for everyone."

It's clear, however, that the space remains fragile and threatened in a variety of ways. In January, Alarcon's fears for the Machu Picchu area became reality as heavy rains sent mudslides pouring through Aguas Calientes, killing 40 people, stranding thousands of tourists and displacing or otherwise severely affecting an estimated 40,000 people overall. The Peruvian government lost an estimated $192 million in tourism revenue before the heritage site reopened April with, according to the wire service reports, actress Susan Sarandon and "hundreds of other tourists" attending "an ancient ceremony asking for the blessing of mother Earth and ... the sounding of an Incan welcoming trumpet."