Juan Yupanqui stared at a pile of mattresses, still wrapped in the plastic they came in when he bought them nearly a year ago. He wondered out loud if they would ever do more than gather dust.
The mattresses were stacked in one of the round, thatched-roof guesthouses Yupanqui built last year on his homestead in Patacancha, a small village nestled more than 11,000 feet above sea level near the colonial city of Cusco, in Peru’s southern Andes. With their small windows and rustic furniture, the cabins were erected to expand his family’s experiential tourism business.
Tourist arrivals started to pick up in 2019 after Yupanqui had worked on the property for years, with an average of five groups a month coming to spend a day or two learning how to herd alpacas; weave the colorful red ponchos that are a community trademark; and dance a quellwa tusuy, a festive step that means “dancing bird” in Quechua, the local language.
Yupanqui decided to upgrade his guesthouses after a brisk start to 2020. Then everything came to a screeching halt in March as Peru imposed a harsh lockdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The French and U.S. tourists he expected that month cancelled, and his cabins have sat empty since then.
Agriculture remains the cornerstone of life in Patacancha and similar hamlets high in the Andean valleys outside of Cusco, but it is tourism that generates cash flow. For now, the visitors have stopped arriving. Yupanqui and thousands of others who worked in the multi-layered tourism industry in the region around Machu Picchu are wondering how long they will be able hold out before tourist dollars and euros return.
A tourism industry in crisis
“Tourism gave us money. Today, we have food, but we don’t have any money,” said Yupanqui, posing for a photo with a lamb, something his visitors used to do. “I get more concerned each day, because we don’t know when this is going to end.”
Besides homestay tourism, many of the men in Patacancha earn cash working as porters or cooks for adventurers hiking the Inca Trail, the ancient route that leads to Machu Picchu. Yupanqui, 44, did this for 18 years. Women in the community weave ponchos and other textile crafts sold in local markets.
The Yupanquis and other Patacancha families are getting through the pandemic financial crisis by selling alpaca yarn and chuño, naturally freeze-dried potatoes, to traders. They raise animals for food, though this is not possible for many of the thousands of people who worked in tourism around Cusco.
Eliana Miranda, director of the Cusco government’s tourism bureau, said 92 percent of people employed in the industry—from hotel receptionists to sidewalk souvenir sellers—had lost their jobs as of August, when Cusco entered into a second lockdown.
“We have had problems in the past, but nothing as devastating to the industry as COVID-19,” she said.
According to Peru’s government, the country’s tourism business could be down as much as 85 percent for 2020. The World Travel and Tourism Council estimates that the direct and indirect economic impact of tourism in Peru in 2019 was approximately $22 billion, or 9.3 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.
Cusco’s airport received nearly 635,000 travelers in the first two months of 2020, up 16 percent from the same period in 2019. The number was only 231,726 over the next eight months, with nearly three quarters of those arrivals in March, according to Peru’s Trade and Tourism Ministry. Only 990 passengers arrived at Cusco’s airport in June, compared to 323,367 the same month last year.
Tourist visits to Machu Picchu, the Inca ruins that anchor tourism in Cusco and draw foreign travelers to Peru in general, were down 72 percent in the first half of the year. The site was receiving around 500 people a day in December, nearly all of them Peruvian tourists, down from more to 2,500 during normal times. The government eliminated the entrance fee to Machu Picchu for Peruvians to stimulate domestic tourism. The site received 1.6 million tourists in 2019.
Turning from tourism to other industries
Miranda said there has been an exodus from the tourism industry, with people moving to other businesses or returning to rural areas to wait out the coronavirus crisis. Her office is coordinating with workers’ associations and local governments to provide assistance to people displaced by the collapse of tourism.
“We have labor training and short-term programs to help maintain income. We have been working with municipalities on job programs for people who have returned, but we think it is going to be temporary. Everyone is really waiting for tourism to return,” she said.
The clock, however, is ticking for many in the hospitality business.
Rubén Tello, a tour guide who speaks Spanish, English, and Quechua, hasn’t worked in the industry since he helped a group of Thai visitors rush home on March 15, 2020, as the government announced it would be closing the borders. He stayed in his apartment for two months, figuring the situation would be resolved by mid-year. When the pandemic didn’t improve, he decided to “reconvert,” the term being used for people leaving tourism for other industries.
“I thought I could wait this out, but the bills started piling up, and by July I had no choice but to find other work,” he said.
Tello said goodbye to his wife and twin 14-year old boys in the city of Cusco and headed to the nearby jungle lowlands, where he is from originally, to look for employment. He found a job driving a truck on a highway construction project. He later worked as a toll collector.
Tello came back to the city in early December, with two groups of tourists lined up and a few others in the wings. But he is realistic about his prospects. “I can’t make ends meet with a group or two a month. If the situation doesn’t pick up in January, I will go back to the construction job,” he said.
How the industry might rebuild
Sofia Arce, who runs a boutique tourism agency, Intense Peru, said the pandemic is transforming the industry. She worries that many restaurants and hotels catering to tourists could close permanently if Peru tries to simply go back to business as usual.
A former banker, Arce managed through the worst months of the coronavirus crisis with a government-backed loan from the Reactivate Peru program, and has started to rebuild as the country reopens.
Peru began allowing international air travel again in October and, in December, reestablished nearly all routes including long-haul flights from Europe and North America. Arce considers these positive steps for tourism, but believes it will take time to get back to pre-pandemic numbers.
“We have sold four tour packages for December, the first ones in nine months. It is a start, but we are going to have to be super active to regain our market,” said Arce. “There is no room for slacking off if we want to build back better.”
A new concern for Arce and others in the industry is Peru’s current political instability—it had three presidents in the span of eight days in November—and rising social demands created by the pandemic-ravaged economy. Peru’s economy contracted by 13.4 percent in the first 10 months of the year; the hospitality industry was down 54 percent from to 2019, the most significant drop in the calculation by the national statistics agency. The national unemployment rate is 15.1 percent.
Machu Picchu, just starting to recover, was forced to close again briefly in mid-December when communities along the train that ferries tourists to the ruins called a strike and blocked the tracks, demanding lower prices for locals who also use the service.
“The political problems are adding a new dimension to the problems here. I think tourists could stay away a little longer if we had instability due to the pandemic,” said Fabricio Zelada, who recently moved back to Cusco after years of living in the country’s capital, Lima.
Peru’s trade and tourism minister, Claudia Cornejo, recognizes that the industry still faces a tough climate, estimating that it might take two or three years for it to return to pre-Covid traffic. The government’s idea is to use the crisis as a reset button so that tourism can “return differently.”
Cornejo said the conditions created by the lack of tourists today should be used by industry “to concentrate on improvements, making upgrades needed so that when receptive tourism begins, we are ready to offer even more than before.”
She sees the kind of experiential, more sustainable tourism offered in places like Patacancha as part of a trend that was gaining ground prior to the pandemic, with tourists wanting to go beyond observing a culture to experiencing it. She said the pandemic might even give it a boost.
“I think experiential tourism is going to continue. COVID-19 interrupted it, but will not stop it,” she said.
Victor Zea is a photographer and National Geographic Explorer based in Cusco, Peru. Follow him on Instagram.