The Killing of Cusco

The Killing of Cusco

& why it’s time to talk about overtourism

Each of Cusco’s walls of ancient, meticulously carved stone are lined with flocks of tourists, waiting patiently to take a selfie in faux-traditional garb. The magnificent and once imposing plaza de armas is tricky to navigate between the heads buried in maps and the men forcefully offering to shine your flip flops. Cusco’s charms are lost to the gigantic tours shuffling in tight groups through tighter streets. Tourism in the city has killed its own foundations.

Cusco acts as a microcosm of the Peruvian stereotype. Loitering cholitas haunting street corners, luring tourists in with their decorated lambs. Stores selling multicoloured jumpers lining every lane, boasting alpaca wool about as authentic as the cholita’s lambs. Chocolate shops, pisco shops, vibrant art duplicated exactly in every ‘artesian’ stand. If you wanted to experience Peru through the eyes of a postcard, this is the town for you. The city has developed into a parody of itself; her purpose is now to show tourists what they think Cusco should be.

This trend perpetuates Cusco’s history of burying their treasures. Colossal Christian structures are piled high upon ancient Inca temples, emblematic of Latin America’s crushing colonial past. A once powerful capital of an ancient empire, quashed by Spanish imperialism, literally built upon the bodies of the indigenous population. As ancient Cusco was buried, new culture developed. Modern Peruvian culture was born from the conflation of indigenous and Spanish lifestyles, from the international influence in their trading ports and from the arrival of immigrants and settlers from around the world. Modern Peruvian culture is not what tourist companies parade around Cusco. Gratuitous garishness, perpetuated by exploitative foreigners, teaches visitors nothing about Peru. It doesn’t funnel money into the pockets of the people of Cusco, who can no longer afford to live in the city if they don’t work in the oversaturated tourism industry. It doesn’t give tourists a rich and well-rounded understanding of the culture and cultural development of Peru, only of the kitsch and the cliché. Only of the reductionist stereotype crafted for holiday snaps.

As single use plastics dominated the moralistic travel blogger mantra of 2018, focus has shifted to the mounting issue of rampant overtourism. The world’s top destinations are scrambling to preserve some semblance of peace and authenticity; Amsterdam has begun removing landmarks, Venice and Dubrovnik are implementing increased tourist taxes, and visitor’s access to Cusco’s Machu Picchu is being restricted more and more each year. As travel becomes increasingly accessible and affordable, vast swathes of sightseers drown famous city streets. Locals in Barcelona are slashing tour bus tires. The graffiti in Mallorca reads ‘tourist you are the terrorist’. Historic residents of Florence are being pushed out to make way for extra tourist facilities and accommodation. People are losing their homes, and cities are losing their souls.

The UN and the EU are enforcing measurements, endeavouring to control the waves of mass tourism. Industry professionals come out every day in favour of changing our behaviour: making sure to say we shouldn’t overpopulate popular cities, yet making sure to say you should still book your next holiday through their handy portal. Bloggers, photographers, magazines, all of us who profit off of the back of the tourism industry, and off the back of encouraging travel. The hypocrisy of simultaneously encouraging and disparaging tourism isn’t lost.

Another tangential problem that we can’t seem to stop talking about is that of why people are travelling more. Sure, much can be attributed to the growth of budget airlines like Ryanair and Easyjet, making it easier for us to all afford to travel. Yet, there’s been an alarming increase in people travelling for the sake of social media. According to this survey, 40.1% of millenials surveyed said that their choice of travel destination was determined by ‘How ‘Instagrammable’ the holiday will be’, while only 3.9% said sightseeing was their primary objective. Residents of Notting Hill have voiced complaints of Instagram models packing tents to change outfits as they conduct full photoshoots on their doorsteps, while the Parisian’s of Rue Cremieux are attempting to restrict access to their street as it is flooded with snap-happy tourists. Does getting a perfect picture of yourself posing in a tourist destination warrant disturbing people just trying to live their lives there? Is it worth having beaches shut down for protection, as they have in Thailand and the Philippines? Does a picture matter more than the preservation of wildlife, as Indonesia consider shutting down a national park to protect their heavily disturbed komodo dragons?

When travelling in the Galapagos, I paid huge ‘protection’ fees, which fund the preservation of the wildlife and of the national parks. Despite this, the islands were plagued by groups of tourists with little-to-no regard for the environment they were enjoying. Boisterous crowds of bustling cruise-shippers posed for photos lying down amongst sea lions, or going out of their way to touch the giant sea turtles you find off the shore. All of these people were paying these taxes and fees, which are amongst the highest in the world for tourists, and it didn’t deter them in any way from this detrimental and unsustainable behaviour. The reams of fresh restrictions at Machu Picchu are born of this history of disregard, of years of tourists clambering over sacred stones, taking pictures of themselves sat on 15th century sundials. When my parents first visited the site, 25 years before I did, tourists were scarce and visitors could roam the site freely. The exploitation of the new restrictions by local tour companies not only make this impossible, but are also damaging to the Peruvian government’s efforts to preserve the site. I wrote a bit more about that here.

The streets of Cusco are littered with the early signs of a city in demise. Locals attempting to get home are barred from their route as an ‘instagram model’ spends 15 minutes attempting to get the perfect flourish on her freshly purchased poncho. Rather than patronising any of Cusco’s local eateries, these tourists will stick to the comfortable familiarity of international establishments that have sprung up all over the city to cater exclusively to tourists. You can’t blame them. There’s few authentically local joints left. Almost every Peruvian friend I made in Cusco was from Lima. Or Arequipa. A few from the north. People from Cusco can’t afford to live there. Rich investors from abroad, or from other parts of Peru, spotted the opportunity that the city poses. A jumping point for tourists looking to visit Machu Picchu, the Sacred Valley, or Rainbow Mountain, Cusco is the only city that a person who is barely intending to see Peru must visit. Everyone from penny-pinching backpackers to short-term, lapse-of-luxury travellers are drawn to Cusco. Tourism is the essential lifeblood of a majority of the businesses here, but as a local tour operator noted in CN Traveler, “[it] is the main economic activity in the region. The problem is we don’t have too much infrastructure [to ensure the wealth is properly distributed].” Wealth is distributed amongst the wealthy, and the locals are priced out of their ancestral homes.

I wouldn’t tell you not to visit. I wouldn’t tell you that the ancient sites, the vast colonial structures and the natural wonders aren’t worth seeing. What I will tell you is that Cusco has lost its heart. Manufactured ‘cultural’ experiences are thrust upon tourists. ‘Authentic’ encounters are created to make tourists feel like they’re engaging with an intriguing foreign culture. Go to Puno first. Go to Arequipa. Go to virtually any other city, town or village in southern Peru and get some perspective. Seek out the authentic, then enjoy Cusco for the kitschy replica it has become.

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Travel blog, travel journalism, covering overtourism in Peru. Tourism and crowds in Peru, group tours to Peru, government restrictions Machu Picchu Cusco Peru