Peru tourism industry in 'free fall' as Machu Picchu closed by protests

Peru attracted 4.5 million tourists a year before the Covid-19 pandemic. PHOTO: PEXELS

OLLANTAYTAMBO, Peru - Decked out in helmet, belt, gold-plated armour and sandals, Mr Juan Pablo Huanacchini Mamani gazes out vacantly from the Ollantaytambo Inca ruins in Peru.

His Inca warrior costume sparkles in the sunlight, but the 48-year-old feels no joy.

Mr Huanacchini has worked in the tourism industry at this gateway town to Machu Picchu, the Inca citadel that is the jewel of Peruvian tourism – since he was a child.

But the Ollantaytambo site that normally welcomes 4,000 visitors a day is deserted.

Peru’s vital tourism industry has been decimated by weeks of social unrest that has left 48 people dead in clashes between protesters and security forces since Dec 7, 2022.

Peru attracted 4.5 million tourists a year before the Covid-19 pandemic.

The sector was supposed to rebound in 2022 and 2023, but Peru’s latest political crisis has left those working in tourism dismayed.

“Look, there’s no one. It’s empty,” moaned Mr Huanacchini.

Situated around 60 km from Cusco – the old Inca capital that acts as a hub for those visiting Machu Picchu – Ollantaytambo has its own ruins of an Inca citadel that are worth visiting, if not as spectacular as those at Machu Picchu.

But protesters allow it to open only at weekends, when barely 100 tourists visit.

Roadblocks, airport closures and the suspension of the train service that serves Machu Picchu have left tourists wary of visiting the area for fear of getting stranded.

‘We’re very sad’

Peru’s southern Andean regions that are home to large populations of poor indigenous people have borne the brunt of the unrest.

Peru has been in crisis since then-president Pedro Castillo – who has indigenous roots – attempted to dissolve congress and rule by decree.

He was subsequently impeached, arrested and charged with rebellion.

Protesters are demanding the resignation of his successor, President Dina Boluarte, immediate elections, a new constitution and the dissolution of the legislature.

But their stamina is having a knock-on effect.

“We’re very sad. We live off tourism, if there’s no tourism….” said Mr Huanacchini.

“We live day to day. Sometimes I earn 100 soles (S$34.30). How am I going to earn anything if there is no one? This is a terrible crisis.”

Peruvian Army personnel walk by closed tourist market stands at the railroad station in Ollantaytambo on Jan 28, 2023. PHOTO: AFP

According to the Tourism Ministry, the unrest is costing the country 25 million soles a day, with hotel occupancy down 83 per cent.

Cusco’s regional tourism director Abel Alberto Matto Leiva says 75 per cent of Cusco’s one million population “works directly or indirectly in tourism. 9,000 guides, 5,000 (trekking) porters, 2,500 travel agents and a whole chain” comprising hotels, restaurants, taxis.

Some 20,000 people are unemployed but that figure is expected to grow six-fold in March.

In Cusco, many hotels and restaurants have closed to save costs.

‘No one is helping us’

Stranded tourists queue at the train terminal in the town of Machu Picchu, Peru’s main tourist attraction, on Dec 14, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

“We are in free fall and we don’t know when this will change,” said Mr Henry Yabar, vice-president of the hotel chamber in Cusco.

He shut his three-star, 15-room hotel.

“Right now there are about 250 people (tourists) in Cusco, in high season we can have 10,000.”

“It has been a fatal blow,” with 95 per cent cancellations and up to 30 percent of the 1,200 hotels – most of which are run locally – going out of business.

“The government needs to throw us a lifeline,” launch an emergency plan and suspend taxes and repayments of loans taken out during the pandemic, said Mr Yabar, who said he expects things to pick up, for those that survive, in July.

In the tourist market close to the central square in Cusco, most stalls are closed.

Surrounded by hand-made hats, Ms Filomena Quispe, 67, has spent 35 years selling handicrafts to tourists.

“I haven’t sold a single sol. What can we do? Close our stall and go,” she said.

“We haven’t sold enough all month to eat.”

Tearfully, Ms Quispe said she is living off her meagre savings.

“No one is helping us at all. We artisans are completely forgotten.”

A view of the empty restaurant area in the town of Machu Picchu on Dec 14, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

Some 14,000 artisans have seen their income practically disappear, according to the authorities.

But for tourists, there is one benefit.

“The visit has been fantastic. It’s empty though, there’s absolutely no one around apart from us,” said Dr Sandeep Cliff, a doctor from London, about his trip to Ollantaytambo.

However, his dream holiday hit a snag.

“We were told literally a week before we arrived that Machu Picchu is closed.”

But he held no grudge to the locals.

“It’s messed our holiday up a bit, but they have a reason (for protesting), and we’ve got to respect that.” AFP

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