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Spider Monkey at the Tambopata Research Center

Photo: Spider Monkey at the Tambopata Research Center in Tambopata National Reserve

After reading the literature to learn more about tourism and ecotourism in Peru to arm ourselves with relevant knowledge when making decisions at TourTheTropics.com, we’ve noted down the following post.

Let’s start with an introduction to ecotourism.

Ecotourism defined by the Nature Conservancy is “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.”1 This definition encapsulates the main goals of ecotourism, however, an additional point of education of tourists and communities was also added by the International Ecotourism Society.

This differs from Nature Tourism, which would be defined as tourism lacking responsibility for appropriate care of the wildlife and the environment attracting the visitors.

Note that there’s a balancing act to perform as sometimes, despite best intentions, there are unforeseen consequences that need to be mediated.

For example, too many tourists in one area, introduced disease, and damaging side effects of creating new infrastructure (e.g. buildings and roads) can all lead to negative effects without careful management, understanding, and planning.2

The phrase often used when tourists exceed the carrying capacity of a destination is overtourism. Not only degrading the experience of the visitors themselves, overtourism has a negative effect on local culture and the quality of life of local residents. Overtourism can also be a main reason why ecotourism objectives fail as too many visitors in one area damages the environment.3,4,5

An often overlooked factor, roads should be a concern and focal point, as they open up the forest interior to hunting, residential development, and deforestation which needs to be carefully managed and regulated.6,7 As a point relevant to 2021 when this was written, roads leading deeper in the forest means hunters have access to new populations of animals and novel pathogens. This is not even counting the direct link between deforestation and infectious diseases.

For tourism to follow the ecotourism guidelines, and to be a sustainable, non-destructive way to source income, the project needs a thoroughly thought out management plan and adequate facilities.8,2

Ongoing research is also recommended on the wildlife and environment to make sure of limited impacts. For example, to make sure wildlife is not under stress from guided activities. If there are too many visitors or if visitors get too close to wildlife and don’t follow ecotourism guidelines, it could stress animals and may cause detrimental effects9 e.g. interfering with courtship rituals, feeding, number of offspring, nesting behaviors, or predation.

Locals should also be involved in the projects as founders, owners, or employed as guides, managers, guides, cooks, and cleaners with conservation and ecotourism education initiatives for staff, visitors, and local communities.

The positive aspect of this balance is that ecotourism can be viewed as a philosophy2 with principles that can shape tourism management in existing tourism companies to better care for the area’s initial attraction. This can move the dial from nature tourism and into ecotourism. This transition would benefit the tour operators as it would translate into higher long-term financial rewards by protecting the area’s attraction.

In addition to allowing visitors to experience and to increase their appreciation of the wild world, ecotourism also creates work opportunities for locals and provides a sustainable alternative to destructive and extractive industries, such as logging, mining, and oil.

Destructive Industry in Peru

In an area where I saw my first wild jaguar, the BBC have released photos from NASA showing the massive amount of gold mining taking place in an area of Amazon Rainforest within and nearby the Tambopata National Reserve and Manu National Park areas of southern Peru. The Amazon contains some of the world’s highest levels of animals and plants10 and this section of Amazonia is recognised as one of the Global 200 regions of priority for conservation.39

Much of the gold mining in these areas is illegal. The mining damages the environment by forest clearing and by the release of vast quantities of toxic chemicals into the forest. This run-off poisons the tributaries of the Amazon killing countless animals and plants with significant health implications for local communities11. The health implications are not trivial. They include knocking a few points of the population’s IQ by interfering with the neurological development of children12. Gold mining increased in the area by 400% between 1999 and 2012.13

Mining is not the only unsustainable activity taking place in Tambopata rainforest. Like other areas of the Amazon, deforestation is taking place at an alarming rate turning the rainforest to agricultural land. The region has an annual deforestation rate of just under 10,000 hectares each year.14 With the trees go the wildlife along with prospective cures to known and novel diseases.10

Tourism in Peru

Now, let’s have a look at tourism in Peru.

Tourism is in the top three most important industries in Peru for foreign revenue.15 The country is a fantastic tourist destination. And the main attractions are the many archaeological sites of various historical cultures, such as Machu Picchu. However, there are other natural attractions to enjoy, including Lake Titicaca (the world’s largest high altitude lake), the Colca Canyon (twice as deep as the Grand Canyon) and the vast Amazon Rainforest. This covers 40% of the continent and is home to more wildlife than any other area on Earth. Peru holds the second highest amount of Amazon Rainforest after Brazil.

For many visitors, the main attraction in Peru is Machu Picchu, which is recognised as one of the New7Wonders of the World. Built by the Inca Pachacuti in the 1400s, the structure reached international attention when discovered for the outside world by American historian Hiram Bingham in 1911.

Number of International Arrivals to Peru

[visualizer id=”22842″ lazy=”no” class=”blog_graph”]Source: World Bank16
Just over 100 years after the international discovery of Machu Picchu, Peru attracts more than 5 million international travelers each year.16 Although many of these visitors are drawn exclusively by Machu Picchu, other areas still play their role in the visitor experience.17,18

Attractions Visited by Tourists to Cusco in 2019

[visualizer id=”22839″ lazy=”no” class=”blog_graph”]Source: PROMPERÚ19

Regions Visited by Tourists to Peru in 2019

[visualizer id=”22851″ lazy=”no” class=”blog_graph”]Source: PROMPERÚ20

Of these areas, the regions with significant ecological attractions visited by tourists include Puno for Lake Titicaca, Arequipa as a main gateway to Colca Canyon, and Loreto and Madre de Dios for the Amazon Rainforest.

To give an idea of the natural attractions in each area, here’s a summary of some popular ecological attractions & activities from each region:

  • Cusco – Tours of the Cloud Forest e.g. Manu National Park
  • Puno – Tours of Lake Titicaca
  • Ica – Sand Dunes – Dune buggies & sand boarding
  • Arequipa – Tours of Colca Canyon & guided hikes of Misti Volcano
  • Tumbes – Mancora beach – tours to see whales & sea turtles
  • Piura – Mancora beach – tours to see whales & sea turtles
  • Ancash – Mountain Climbing Tours & Treks
  • Loreto – Amazon Rainforest Tours
  • Madre de Dios – Amazon Rainforest Tours

Protected Areas Visited – By International & National Tourists, 2018*

[visualizer id=”22857″ lazy=”no” class=”blog_graph”]SERNANP39, PROMPERÚ21 *Not including Machu Picchu

How Sustainable is Tourism in Peru?

In the global ranking of tourism 2019, the World Economic Forum rated Peru 49th out of 140 countries studied (increasing from the 2017 index), which includes 10 indicators of Environmental Sustainability, such as the enforcement of the government’s environmental regulations, the sustainably development of tourism, and the status of water and forest resources. Other factors contributing to the index include Safety and Security, Health and Hygiene, Prioritization of Travel and Tourism, and International Openness among others.3

Peru then ranked 5th in Latin America just behind Costa Rica and Panama and ranked 47th with a score of 4.4 for environmental sustainability, along with Australia, Tanzania, and Japan ahead of the 4.1 average for the Americas — and ahead of the 4.1 environmental sustainability rating of the United States. Peru was also ranked most improved since 2017 for the quality of tourism infrastructure.3

Peru ranked 16th for Natural and Cultural Resources with a score of 3.9, 118th for safety and security with a score of 4.7 (just above Kenya’s score of 4.6), 93rd for Health and Hygiene (just above the Philippines), 72nd for Prioritization of Travel & Tourism with a score of 4.7 (just above Chile), and 8th for International Openness.3

As we can see from the World Economic Forum review above, Peru is taking sustainable tourism seriously and this is helped by the significant contribution tourism provides for the country’s GDP.

A Closer Look

Let’s have a closer look at a few areas in Peru to see what the main issues are and what improvements could be made to improve tourism in Peru for the environment and local communities.

The areas looked at will be the Peruvian Amazon, Colca Canyon, and Lake Titicaca:

Amazon Tourism in Peru

The Amazon Rainforest is the world’s largest container of wildlife. The rainforest is under constant threat from deforestation for agriculture and settlement, hunting, and exploitation by oil, timber and mining companies.

In an area of Peruvian Amazon Rainforest, rainforest lodges have been shown to be valuable for drawing public and governmental attention to destructive and illegal activity in the rainforest, as many lodges have a lease on a rainforest concession outside the protection of the national park.22 They also demonstrate the assumption that lodges will have incentive in protecting the rainforest to maintain visitor interest and financial viability22

Tourism is also shown to be beneficial to native communities,22,23. Understandably, this is best when certain certain factors are in place, such as the communities have sufficient skills or assistance with management, marketing, and finances of the lodge, have support from park authorities, and are not subject to anti-competitive practices from nearby operators.24,25

To provide opportunities for communities, the creation of local schools where community members can learn the skills necessary to work in the tourism industry can be established.25 Providing opportunities like these will also create long term beneficial relationships preventing conflict. Contrary to popular opinion, not only providing incentive to protect and learn more about the rainforest, ecotourism can also be beneficial for cultural identity in indigenous communities.23

In the long term, ecotourism is likely to create a positive feedback loop with the state providing more incentive to protect the forest. This would translate to regulating settlement and hunting on touristic reserves and concessions leased by tour operators or to assimilate the lodge and concessions into state protection where tourism is permitted.

The tourism industry is already involved with state level conservation planning. As tourism is one of the fastest growing sectors in the Peruvian economy, this is likely to become more significant. As an example, the tourism industry contributed significantly to Peru establishing the Bahuaja-Sonene National Park in 1996 connected to the Tambopata Reserve despite Mobil Oil’s prospecting plans in the region and a proposal to extend the Trans-Amazon Highway (Trans-Oceanic Highway).25

Colca Canyon Tourism

The Colca Canyon region is home to incredible scenery, many different geological formations, hot springs, geysers, and provides the largest habitat for the Andean condor (Vultur gryphus).26

The Peruvian Andes in general is home to one of the world’s highest diversities of bird species27. In addition to the condors, the birdlife you can find in the Colca Canyon region includes the Andean Goose, Andean Lapwing, Giant Hummingbird, Streaked Tit-Spinetail, Chiguanco Thrush, Greenish Yellow Finch, and Chilean Flamingo. The condor and flamingo are seen as the most important species for tourism. However, the region is important habitat for many different birds, such as many puna-restricted species27.

Once thought to be a burden by local communities, attitudes towards tourism are changing with the adoption of more sustainable tourism practices and more of the benefits being returned to local communities.28,29 There is also a drive in the direction of sustainability, as well as a desire by the local communities for more control over regional tourism.29

Number of Visitors to Colca Canyon

[visualizer id=”22880″ lazy=”no” class=”blog_graph”]Source: MINCETUR30; Galas, Galas, Carrión, & Quispe, 201732

As visitor numbers to Colca Canyon continue to grow30 different areas and regional activities could be opened for visitors with sufficient infrastructure30 to manage issues with rubbish and overtourism28,29. There is already an abundance of geotourism opportunities in the Colca Canyon region31 and potential for more cultural and environmental attractions29. Keeping with the ecotourism philosophy, this should be managed in an environmentally conscious manner with careful attention to road construction modeled on similar areas, such as the Grand Canyon National Park.30 Establishing the Canyon Colca and Valley of the Volcanoes National Park would improve tourism opportunities and provide better means to control visitor numbers and activities helping to preserve the region.26

Lake Titicaca

Lake Titicaca is the world’s largest high altitude lake. The lake is home to a number of animals, such as the Andean coot, puna ibis, Andean duck, puna teal, as well as endemic species including the Titicaca flightless grebe and critically endangered Titicaca Frog.

The frog took my attention when I saw it featured in a documentary as a child. Because the frog live in a high altitude lake where it’s difficult to absorb oxygen, it has an amazing excess of skin to increase the frog’s surface area (the frogs breathe by absorbing oxygen through their skin). This has led to the unfortunate name of scrotum frog.

The threats to the frog are unlikely to be from tourism, but from an intensive and unsustainable trade. Locals seem unaware of the frog’s predicament, as well as being unaware that its illegal in Peru to sell the frogs, and they were found available at markets in Cusco.33

Instead of the wildlife, tourism in Lake Titicaca focuses on the landscape and cultural experiences, such as visiting the different islands and lake communities. Research from 2010 showed tensions increasing with local communities for more control of tourism in the region.34

At tourism’s foundation in Titicaca, communities on the lake islands of Taquile and Amantani were key players in developing the Titicaca tourism industry. However, the increase of external tour operators and mass day-tourism has overtaken local initiatives resulting in minimal benefits being returned to the communities themselves, despite culture being mentioned by tourists as the main reason for visiting.35

Once a significant source of revenue in a communitarian tourism model, which has Incan roots and involves community members pooling resources to evenly share benefits with all community members, now mainly benefits international tour operators who control how long visitors stay, where they visit, and what they do.35

An interesting point regarding tourism sustainability and culture is to what degree tourism and its potential financial benefits will change the communities. For example, since tourism began in Titicaca there has been a noticeable shift from communalism to individualism among the communities, as well as other noticeable changes.37

As change is inevitable, the most important element is that the change comes by decision from the communities themselves. As mentioned in a study by Mitchell in 2008, ‘It would be a crime if we prevented contact from the rest of the world and turned Taquile into a living museum.’35 It should also be noted that the communities have been changing for some time before the arrival of tourism to the lake, such as with women earning money for the first time in 1968 due to selling textiles in the US-sponsored cooperative in Cusco.37

A survey of tourist attitudes to Lake Titicaca was taken by Wright, Dodds and Dimanche in 2018 and the open ended question “please specify any impacts of tourism, positive or negative, observed during your excursion in Lake Titicaca” revealed that 26% of guests asked saw tourism as damaging the environment (due to rubbish), 10% saw tourism damaging to culture (many items are marketed towards tourists), 9% mentioned overcrowding, and 28% thought the experience was culturally inauthentic. However, overall most thought tourism was beneficial.

Although only using a small sample size of 187 visitors, over half the tourists asked showed a willingness to pay a tax towards the communities. As 88% of tourists are day-visitors spending around 2 hours at Lake Titicaca with no opportunities for the communities to benefit from the experience, an additional fee, of at least totaling the amount the communities once received from tourism, that goes directly to the communities could change the sustainability of tourism in Titicaca.36. Although, this requires the government to allow a little flexibility in their views regarding private enterprise.

Other simple improvements could include limiting tourist numbers below the region’s carrying capacity or establishing a Cultural Center with paid admission operated according the communalism model.


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  39. SERNANP: Memoria Institucional 2018 – http://old.sernanp.gob.pe/sernanp/archivos/documentos/Transparencia/Memoria_anual/2018/Memoria%202018%20SERNANP%20Final%20Fx%20.pdf Accessed April 12, 2021.
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