Tourism Paradox

Updated: Dec 19, 2018

Last week, the trip duration surpassed the two month marker. It’s crazy to look back at it now and know traveled through four countries and am currently exploring the fifth. I have seen so much and learned even more. It makes me excited and I am eagerly anticipating what the second half of this journey has to offer.

The following post will contain more analysis and commentary on what I have seen than the retelling of a story. I believe both types of these accounts are important as a traveler. A traveler must not only experience it, whatever it may be, but criticize it. Why, how, who, what, and when. These are the heads of the questions I ask myself while wandering around these countries. Therefore, Reader, I hope the following will not only be an engaging read but a reflecting one.

An indigenous woman showing a hawk (named Roca) to tourists.

Tourism. Many of us have been tourists at some point in our lives. It’s an unavoidable label smacked onto you when you visit a foreign place. I personally don’t like this label. It carries certain stereotypes and expectations: naive, disrespectful, easy to cheat, and ignorant. The concept of being a tourist is further biased when a certain country or culture is coupled with it. For example - American: can’t speak other languages, wears shorts, rude. Japanese: large groups, cameras, sunglasses. German: multilingual, blonde, tall. Additionally, locals may express resentment towards the influx of tourists during particular times of the year. However, having to deal with the effects of being perceived as a tourist is a necessary aspect of travel. Personally, my experience as being perceived as a tourist, more accurately a “mochilero“ (backpacker), has been a mostly positive one down here in South America. But, I wanted to share on a deeper level the impact I have experienced and researched.

Tourism, like most things, has a good and a bad side. On one hand, “overtourism”, for example, has recently become an epidemic and many countries are taking steps to curb the effect of just too many people. Venice recently banned cruise ships from docking in the city (and may even ban sitting down soon too). Amsterdam and Spain are picking fights with Airbnb. And Croatia is feeling the effects of being the backdrop of “Game of Thrones.“ Tourism also can exploit or severely damage a destination. The love locks on the Pont des Arts Bridge in Paris were all recently removed after the bridge was deemed structurally unsound from all the added weight of the locks. In Myanmar, the Valley of the Temples suffers from tourists “climb[ing] the pagodas at sunrise to watch the hot air balloons glide across the sky, and again in the evening to see the sunset,“ because they “climb up the ancient brick formations to the tip of the pagodas, which often crumble.“

On the other hand, tourists experience new culture or country and further learns and adds to their overall understanding of the world. Tourists contribute to the economy and the exchange of cultures and ideas amongst people have the potential for bettering society. Tourism in itself is often a huge part of an economy to a country as well. According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), “The Americas welcomed 163 million international tourists 2012, up 7 million (+5%) on the previous year.” In South America alone, Venezuela (+19%), Chile (+13%), Ecuador (+11%), Paraguay (+11%) and Peru (+10%) all reported double-digit growth. In the United States, statistics show that tourism has recently decreased over the past few years, a deviation from the global trend of rising tourism amongst other countries.

Street in La Paz, Bolivia which was covered in tourist merchandise.

While traveling around, I have observed both the good and the bad of tourism in South America. First, the good. Physical sites and buildings like museums and archeological ruins for example, are relatively easy to see, and a portion of the profits often are committed to restoration and maintaining the sights for the years to come. Machu Picchu contained the best preserved ruins I’ve ever seen in my life. With a strong system of organization, the Peruvian government has committed many resources to assuring that the site stays preserved while also accommodating visitors from around the world. I was very impressed with how they handled the influx of people. Thousands of people visit the site everyday. In 2013, 1.2 million people visited the ancient ruins, and between January and June of 2017, 610,000 people visited. That's approximately 3 thousand people a day. As Peru’s highest grossing and most popular tourist destination, Machu Picchu is at the top on the list for preservation and funds. According to this article, Peru was the fourth most popular country to visit in South America in 2012, behind Brazil (5.7 million), Argentina (5.6 million), and Chile (3.6 million). By 2021, The Ministry of Foreign Trade and Tourism of Peru (MINCETUR) hopes to draw five million foreign tourists per year. As it stands currently, the tourism industry is ranked third in terms of contributions to Peru’s economy. Mining and fishing take the top two spots.

Last week, I embarked on a three day excursion in the Pampas de Yacuma, Bolivia. Covering over 1.5 million acres and containing an incredible diversity of flora and fauna, the pampas became protected land in 2007. The pampas are a delicate ecosystem but there are ways to experience the wildlife and nature without damage. It must be done with respect. I was an unnatural guest in this beautiful landscape and therefore I looked for a touring company that shared the same mentality. I found this mentality with Bala Tours. Twenty-one years in operation, the guides and staff were professional, knowledgeable, and most importantly, respected the land and those that called it their home. For three days I observed wildlife - capybaras, dozens of bird species, caymans, turtles, pink river dolphins, sloths, yellow squirrel monkeys - from a boat. I woke up to the calls of howler monkeys one morning and the sound of rain splattering on the palm trees on another morning, and blissfully enjoyed being disconnected as there was no internet connection and only sporadic electricity, sourced from a gas generator. As much as what I saw was incredible, Bala Tours enhanced the experience by sharing the “guest” mentality. It made me appreciate and reflect on the environment, and I was fairly sad when I found myself returning to civilization a few days later. I mention this experience because I believe it is a good example of respectful and non-disruptive tourism. Being a guest and leaving no trace. The aim is not to exploit nor damage nor disrespect for the sake of profit or for the “gram” or for anything else.

My "gringo sweater"

At other times, I experienced the overreaching effects of tourism. Whole streets and neighborhoods in certain towns, like Agua Calientes (the base town adjacent to Machu Picchu), are completely overrun by tourist shops and restaurants. When I visit craft markets I have a hard time determining whether products are real or face, and whether prices are gauged or reasonable. In the beginning of this trip, I would eagerly wander around the colorful stalls looking at everything far and in between. Now, I notice and pass by these “artisanal markets“ without a second glance. I see duplicate products everywhere I go: blankets, jewelry, clothing. I bought a sweater in Quito, Ecuador, thinking it was unique. I have since learned that my sweater is a quintessential “gringo sweater,” and I avoid wearing it in public in an effort to elude street vendors and restaurant promoters who target their aggressive salesmanship towards blatant gringo passerbys. I am keenly aware of how many tourists flock to some of the destinations I have visited. In towns like Huacachina, Peru, and San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, more visitors than locals roamed the streets. This shift in population distribution has the potential to permanently alter the local culture and community. And, unfortunately, recent trends predict that things will not seem to get any better in the future.

In this article from the New York Times, the writer, Farhad Manjoo, attributes some of the overtourism effects to Instagram and Facebook: “You can’t talk about overtourism without mentioning Instagram and Facebook — I think they’re big drivers of this trend...Seventy-five years ago, tourism was about experience seeking. Now it’s about using photography and social media to build a personal brand. In a sense, for a lot of people, the photos you take on a trip become more important than the experience.” This article resonated within me significantly and I agree that social media has indirectly affected tourist destinations negatively. I am guilty of this. I have uploaded photos to social media of the places I've visited. While I haven't gone on this trip solely to take and share pictures, I may have contributed overtouism by influencing my followers/friends to maybe take a trip they otherwise wouldn't have taken. I personally don't know how I feel about this at the moment. On one hand, I actively encourage people to travel. I believe that traveling is the best way to learn about the world. And not just about places but about people, society, and culture. Travel improves my understanding of how the world works and I think this is an invaluable skill. I hope to encourage others to adopt this means of learning because it has taught me lessons that I would want others to have. On the other hand, I don't want my experiences traveling to come at the expense of the authenticity of the places where I travel. What good is a destination if it becomes overrun, saturated, or even ceases to exist, in 10 years? What good is a destination if its economy has become almost completely dependent on tourism? A significant aspect of tourism is the diffusion of culture. But if the diffusion is not observed and managed, it becomes destructive. Since reading and researching this topic, I have been more aware of my presence on social media and am looking for a balance of sharing my experience without further adding to the overtourism of a destination.

I now ask you, Reader, to sit back and think of the places you have visited. It doesn't have to be anywhere or exotic or even international. It can be a town a few miles from you. How did you add to the local economy of that place? Did you leave a trace? Did you engage in typical “tourist” activities or maybe Instagram the destination? Every action has a benefit and a consequence and it's up to us to be mindful of the places we visit. We are guests, after all.

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