Reflections on Tourism in Puno

Surprise, surprise, I was a tourist and felt a lot of conflicted feelings. Some of them are valid. Mainly, I am working on some positive takeaway or suggestion for future tourism in my life and yours if you would like.

The YAVs went on a packed first vacation. From visiting islands on the highest navigable lake in the world, to trekking through the fourth deepest canyon in the world, to lighting fireworks off for New Years’ Eve, there was a lot to enjoy, learn from, and reflect on.

We challenged our physical limits at altitudes topping 4,000 meters. We learned various fascinating, but obscure facts about local cultures, flora, and fauna of southeast Peru.

Peru is an amazing place for tourism. It comes across as a tourist paradise, with 20 out of 36 total climate zones, superlative natural features, diverse wildlife, storied ruins, and many distinct culture traditions. There’s adventure tours, food tours, culture tours, and most others that come to mind.

Peruvian and multinational tourism companies have honed their execution. So honed that you definitely don’t need to plan your travel ahead of time. In fact, we found that it saves you both money and logistical stress. Online companies want to make some additional profit and know that you’re ignorant of the specifics, so they’ll highly overcharge. Additionally, I found no change in reliability on time. Our booked-in-person trekking trip was double the length of time while our online-booked rafting trip was half the time. The point is don’t stress about planning a vacation in Peru, there are always amazing things to find when you arrive.

Still, no matter my planning strategy, I always get uncomfortable with the paternalism in these tours. Our tour guide on the Uros and Taquile Islands on Lake Titicaca directed what the indigenous folks we met did and barely allowed them to speak to us. Instead, he did all the talking.

He shared a lot of useful information and more than likely there would have been no difference in content, but there is still something uncomfortable about the tour dynamic.

As part of the tour, island members said hello and thanked us for our presence.

When our tour guide showed us a long gun used for hunting, he brandished it, while the president of the island just held up a piece of bird jerky. Likewise, the president showed us how to build an island out of reeds, like Uros, but did not participate in the explanation.

The tour guide dominated all information exchange. It felt as if the actual people of the place we were visiting were there to play parts in a narrative rather than have their own voice. And, honestly, it’s always like that.

It got worse when I saw things that contradicted the cute storybook description of the culture of Taquile Island. Our guide informed us that the indigenous folk wear traditional dress inspired by Spain. When I pointed out a boy walking in a hoodie and jeans, he explained that that boy must have left the house quickly because you should not leave your house without the correct clothing. I could feel him stretching the truth to fit his story in attempt to reconcile the digestible picture he had attempted to give us.

Additionally, there were clear positive spins. The phrase, “They don’t get divorced on Taquile Island, they are happily married forever,” is spun as happily as possible. To me, that would be an extremely sad reality, especially as many are married as young as 20. While I have no idea of the legitimacy of this statement, I find boasting it to send a disturbing message about the culture, which I would have preferred to learn about from a member of the culture.

In the end I left having learned a lot, but feeling uncomfortable with myself and the tour. The root of the discomfort was that these negatives come out of a desire to cater to tourists. Tour guides handle all communication because it would take much longer to allow a representative of the culture to talk and translate that. It may not change the information shared and it saves time. Tourists want the smoothest, most comfortable experience possible. I can’t get angry at companies that provide that.

It makes me highly uncomfortable, but that’s not what actually upsets me. The outcome though is a decline in cross-cultural exchange, which is one of the main positives created by travel. It cheapens the interaction in order to make it digestible for tourists and, in my opinion, damaging to members of the culture.

So, I admit, this is the one bit of tourism that you shouldn’t wait for the last minute to set. Before the tour I found a few NGOs that offered more sustainable and culturally appropriate tours. I chose not to pursue them and feel mildly hypocritical for that now. It seemed a more complicated process and I went for the easy, smooth tourist option instead.

Sometimes, though, I wonder about how much better those options are. Either way, it’s a highly short visit. It will not create real friendships or connections. It is unlikely you will be able to share moments of true communication. Plus, it’s easy for alternative tour agencies to put on a better face, while just cashing in on people’s desire to “be more than a tourist.”

Honestly, the difference comes down to a gesture. Except a profit-driven industry will always struggle to capture a nuanced gesture.

At the end of the day, it comes down to allowing indigenous groups more of a say in the process. It’s important they have the right to refuse participation or contribute to the business model. They are a major stakeholder and should be treated as such.

I can’t decide what the proper outcome should be, but I think we can all agree that is a more equitable choice on the input side of the industry.

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