The Impact of Tourism in Spanish-Speaking South America

Most of you know by now my feelings towards the general tourist population here in South America…it’s not exactly a glowing review. Over the past forty years, it is undeniable that tourism has completely transformed the southern continent of the Americas…but is it a change for the better, or for the worse? I’m going to take a look into this question, drawing from research and my own personal experience.

South America is and has always been a huge cultural centre for the ex-Spanish colonies that were the beginning of the governments that rule from the Andes mountains to the jungles of the Amazon today. That much hasn’t changed; you can still see the remnants of the ancient Inca Empire in Perù, ride horses with Argentine gauchos, and even visit an Ayahuasca shaman in the Amazon if you look hard enough. Perhaps for these reasons tourism has become so popular in South America since the mid-to-late eighties; it offers one the unique opportunity to truly see another world, one totally different in nearly every aspect from the home country of virtually every tourist that arrives. To escape into the unknown; who wouldn’t jump at such an oppertunity?

During the first half of the Twentieth Century, South America was rather off-the-map for the Average Joe tourist with a thousand bucks and the bug to travel; most governments were still fairly new and unstable, there were frequent border disputes in all parts, and many areas of the continent were undeveloped and largely inaccessible (except to the very determined explorer). Large portions of South America in 1945 could have been indistinguishable from the same place in 1845, or 1745 (this of course excepting the major cities, i.e. Bogotà, Buenos Aires, Lima, Rio de Janario, etc..). However, the eighties saw Perù and Ecuador cooling down over ownership of parts of the Amazon (namely, Iquitos), Chile and Argentina reaching a mutual agreement over ownership of Tierra del Fuego, (split down the middle), and, in 1988, Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet falling from power after fourteen years of arguably fascist rule; the turbulent politics of South America seemed to be cooling down a bit (with the notable exception of Colombia, who at the time was under heavy influence of drug lords such as Pablo Escobar in Medellìn and the Rodríguez Orejuela brothers in Cali, and was just at the beginning of their still-ongoing armed conflict with FARC revolutionaries). Roads were paved, public transportation improved, and suddenly the ‘wilds’ of South America were easily accessible to anybody with a credit card and a backpack.

It’s been nearly thirty years since then, and the effect the hordes (and I mean hordes) of tourists who flood all major airports on a daily basis is quite obvious. First, let’s look at the positive impacts…

Without a doubt, tourism has given many floundering South American economies a healthy boost, and in some cases (namely Perù), it virtually one of the main industries. Before tourists began going to Perù to see the ‘lost’ city of Machu Piccu or to go pirahana fishing in the Amazon, the Peruvian economy was in ruins; the per-capita income in 1950 was less than $.25; in 2010 it is about $5.20 (this is, of course, not taking into account inflation levels; still, the per capita is undoubtably higher today). Though 36.2 % of it’s population is considered ‘poor’ (with 12.6 % ‘extremely poor’), Perù is more prosperous today than it was sixty years ago; tourism is a factor in this, (along with the liberalizing policies of Alberto Fujimori in the nineties). The city of Cusco has exploded from an isolated mountain town to the literal hub of tourism in Perù today. Forty years ago, it’s population was less than fifty thousand; today it is more than six times that with nearly 375,000 inhabitants. 450,000 tourists visit Cusco every year to see the ruins of Machu Piccu, giving the Cusconian economy a healthy vein of income to grow from.

Tourism also helps to broaden the mind of the tourist; many will tell you they returned from a two month trip to Bolivia ‘a changed person.’ The opportunity to learn and experience parts of other cultures is indeed something I belive is vital to a full and happy life.

But what about the negative impacts? Some parts of the continent are relatively untouched, but the major tourist attractions of South America have clearly suffered greatly; Machu Piccu is soon to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site In Danger due to the visits of more than 2,000 tourists a day and the development of a luxury hotel with boutiques and restaurants near the area. However, putting aside the physical negative impacts of tourism, let’s look at the social impact it has had…which I belive is far worse.

Perù, again, is the best example. I have spent several months in there on a few different journeys; Peruvians who live in very small towns far away from Machu Piccu, Lake Titicaca, and the waves of foreign backpackers are perhaps some of the nicest, caring, most selfless people I’ve ever met. The old-fashioned traditions of hospitality to travelers, story-telling ’round a campfire, and family bonding are alive and well there, and, despite obvious crushing poverty in many cases, you feel safe and comfortable. But travel a few hundred miles to the east to Puno or Cusco and the people make a total transformation. They become loud, crass, money-hungary parasites; flocks of vultures, looking for a tourist from which he’s fairly certain he can scavenge few Soles off of. ‘Taxi!’ for four times the normal price, ‘A Machu Piccu!’ for three hundred dollars an hour, ‘pollo frito!’ at a ridiculously inflated price. Every Peruvian you meet in Cusco will be absolutely friendly to you…until you refuse his wares, or God forbid, utter the words ‘I have no money.’ The smile of the taxi driver transforms with astounding quickness into a hostile scowl, and the man peddling hostal rooms at forty Soles a night looks as if he wants to spit on you. They even degrade themselves in the name of the Almighty Dollar: posters advertising trips to Machu Picchu shout opportunities to see ‘the wild city,’ ‘ancient culture,’ and…’Andean children.’ Andean children! They’ve put up their own offspring, their very flesh and blood, as just another attraction; a display for 2,000+ cameras a day to snap impassively onto 2,000+ memory cards. Just another photo for Facebook; ‘Look at me and the Andean Child!’ No different than, ‘Look at me next to the Taj Mahal!’

Ravenous money-mongerers; this is what tourism has reduced the people of Cusco to. Most tourists do nothing to discourage them; they gladly overpay the taximan without even knowing it, and shell out thousands of Soles over a few days doing unmemorable things; the people of Cusco can and do make money off of tourism…but at the price of their moral dignity.

This is the same in every tourist spot: San Pedro de Atacama, Chile; Parts of La Paz, Bolivia; Baños, Ecuador; Capurganà, Colombia. Tourism boosts the standard of living for most, but at the same time robs them of their morals and reduces them to cash-obsessed fools.

So: ultimate diagnosis? Despite the fact that many South American economies draw much support off the tourism industry, the rich natural resources of the continent are more than capable of providing enough for any one of these countries under the right management, without the ‘help’ of tourism. If it weren’t for tourism, Machu Piccu would still be a lost city, instead of a ‘lost’ city, and one would have to reach it the old way; with lots of walking, sweat, and effort which would ultimately be rewarded with a rare glimpse of one of the greatest cultural wonders our world has to offer. Now, thanks to tourism, you simply have to pay a man a rather large sum, buy a bus ticket, sit in air-conditioned comfort for a few hours, and finally ramble around the ruins for two hours, in lines, like cattle, with thousands of other foreigners; you listen to babble in a thousand strange tongues and the click-snap of 2,000 digital cameras going off over and over and over and over again. You buy a T-shirt, and snap a ‘good shot’ in front of a stone archway while clutching your bottled water and trying to ignore those Americans shouting far too loud over there by the wall.

Welcome to The Great Inca Empire…of Tourism.

10 thoughts on “The Impact of Tourism in Spanish-Speaking South America

  1. Welcome to my trips through Central America. I have seen amazing things here but no place will compare culturally to my stint in northern and middle Mexico.

  2. A buddy and I went to San Pedro de Atacama during a break from work, while he may not feel the same as I, I definitely got a “I should have been here 50 years ago” vibe. The horrible thing is that the reason why it is such a touristy spot is because it has so much to offer, at least in landscapes. While we were on a stict time-schedule, I know for sure that my next Atacama passing won’t be complete without a Chiu-Chiu visit.

  3. We´re no different man. Just because we hitch hike instead of ride busses and play harmonica for food and money instead of sit behind desks for 50 weeks out of the year doesnt mean we’re more pure, just more respectful in a lot of ways. We still afford the luxury to NOT work, to travel and do whatever we wanna do, instead of being tied to the land or a wife and kids or elderly parents. Wandering is a luxury, and being white and affluent born opens the world up in ways we will never understand and ways the poor kid waxing tourists´ boots in Cuzco streets can never ignore. Its damn frustrating for me, the men who give me rides offer me food and money all the time and I cant accept any of it cuz I know that someone deserves it way more than me. Many times Ive walked away from wads of cash. Wads! And then 10 seconds later realized, fuck, Im hungry.

    • Oh, we’re different all right – not more “pure,” of course, but our reasons for being where we are coulçdn’t be more different than a tourist’s. When somebody asks me, “what are you doing here?” I tell them “I live here.” And it’s true, because at the time I do. I have no house. I have no address. I have no ties to anything anywhere except for my family. I am in that place because that’s where my Home of the Day, or Week, or Month is. I go to a place not knowing if I’m going to spent ten minutes there or ten years, and I go there because of one reason: it’s there and I’m curious.

      Generally, a tourist is there to see ceartin things he expects to see and obtain stories to tell back home. There’s no such thing as a pure or unpure traveller – we all play by our own rules, which is one of the great beauties of our lifestyle. While I don’t agree with tourism at all, I try very hard not to automatically hate all of them I see (though sometimes I just can’t stand it and walk out of town grumbling to myself until I can’t see any people). Many of them are good people stuck in the rat race, taking a much needed rest, and are blissfully ingorant of what they are doing.

    • I think there IS a difference, and while playing harmonica or hitchhiking has nothing to do with it, it does have to do with being more respectful to people and to their way of life. Many tourists don’t bother to even learn a few words in the native language of the country that they came all this way to see. Although I would argue that many backpackers make much more of an effort to learn some Spanish in SA then tourists to say Africa, or Asia.
      Unfortunately fulfilling ones dreams of seeing the Taj Mahal or the Great Pyramids of Giza greatly impact a culture that we often know little about, and unless we spend months, years or a lifetime to understand that place, we likely are changing a place for the worse. The thing is that not everyone can do what we do, so when I see another tourist as long as they make an effort to understand and learn from a culture, what more can you ask? Especially with tourists who stay in hostels like Loki, seek out drugs like cocaine, and are just pure nasty to the local population, the former is a much better option.
      Places like Cusco will only become more tourist infested, but just as Patrick mentions these small towns 100′s of kilometers away, they will always exist without the impact of tourism because there is nothing to “see” there. And even if tourists do occasionally visit, it won’t be the snap happy hordes that visit Machu Picchu, nor the party backpackers. This is for one reason: They aren’t looking for it.

      • I have discovered the hipster traveler. Everyone else is doing it wrong except for me.

        Damn, and I thought long term travelers would self select out this kind of mentality.

  4. Still I dont know how anyone can enjoy that kind of travel, the hostels and tour busses and national parks… Day one: catch the bus at 9am to the Falls, lunch break between treks from 12 to 140, an extra 150 dollars to adventurousely traverse the cenotes, 10 dollars snaps your picture with an authentic Maya warrior (hey, his tribal facepaint smells like shoe polish, and is that a digital watch… what to you mean the Maya nowadays wear blue jeans!!), return by bus at either 3 or 5pm back to the hostel with a grand total of 40 seconds of interaction with any brown skinned local and simultaneiously feel incredibly cosmopolitan.

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