In Peru's Cuzco, COVID-19 pandemic devastates tourism and economy

01 Nov 2020 9:59 AM
Image: Collected
Efraín Valles guided world leaders, pop stars and a princess on exclusive tours through the land of the Incas. He now makes ice cream to survive amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Valles, once probably the most sought-after guides in Cuzco high in Peru's Andes, is one of the 1.3 million people nationwide in a tourism industry devastated by the novel coronavirus and the measures imposed to fight its spread, including international travel restrictions.

Cuzco, the historic capital of the Inca empire near Machu Picchu lives almost entirely from international tourism and is suffering the worst crisis in its recent history. A lot more than 226,000 people who make crafts or are waiters, hotel staff and taxi drivers, have been plunged into an economical abyss. Merchants say they have lost a lot more than two-thirds of their income.

“We are beginning with scratch in an activity that we never thought we were likely to do,” said Valles, who together with two of his colleagues have started making artisanal fruit ice creams they sell beneath the name of “Qosqo Creme."

The last decade was brilliant for Valles. In 2014, he was called the very best guide on earth by British tourism magazine Wanderlust and in 2016 the government made him an ambassador for a marketing strategy to draw more international tourists

He gave tours to Princess Beatrice, granddaughter of Queen Elizabeth II, the former president of the World Bank Jim Yong Kim, British singer Ed Sheeran, in addition to the grandchildren of U.S. explorer Hiram Bingham, who photographed Machu Picchu in 1911.

However the arrival of the novel coronavirus in March and travel restrictions turned Cuzco, which received a lot more than 1.8 million international visits annually, right into a near ghost town. Only Spanish and Quechua could be heard in Cuzco's main square, something unimaginable prior to the pandemic when it resembled a tiny Babel with tourists speaking a multitude of languages.

Hotels, travel agencies, jewelry stores, restaurants, cafes, chocolate shops and dollar exchange houses are closed by the square. Only a few souvenir shops remain open nonetheless they go for days without customers.

"I don’t sell anything,” said Lourdes Auca, 50, who reopened her shop selling alpaca wool hats in the plaza fourteen days ago. She pays $2,100 per month in rent for the shop and prior to the pandemic, on an excellent day, she'd earn up to $300. Her two sons have dropped out of university because the family ran out of money.

Ruth Rodríguez, owner of the tourism agency Ruthbela Travel Tours, said that a large number of tourists would normally seriously June 24 for Inti Raymi, the Incan festival of sunlight. But this year the streets were empty.

“The streets appeared to be crying because there is no one,” said Rodríguez, 37, who has accumulated $13,000 with debt.

Peru's central government created a $143 million fund as a warranty for banks to loan money to the tourism sector, but Rodríguez says she was recently denied $5,000 by a bank. She contends the fund only favors large business groups.

Fredy Deza, Cusco’s regional director of tourism, said there are 8,000 guides in your community who don't have usage of these benefits.

“Artisans are not acknowledged by banks either,” he said.

The federal government then allocated $4.5 million from the fund to be awarded to guides and artisans who propose new tourist routes or impressive craft projects. Right now, 129 Cuzco guides and artisans have obtained grants of $830 for guides and $415 for artisans, according to official data.

The small town of Aguas Calientes, the closest to Machu Picchu, is also a ghost town. A lot more than 60% of its 8,000 inhabitants left as businesses shuttered.

Pilar Pérez, a 34-year-old sweeper, told said that in four years of work, she has never found so little garbage on the streets of Aguas Calientes. “This has never happened,” she said.

Lidu Guzmán, 32, owner of the Luna Muna hostel in Aguas Calientes, does not have any tourists in her five-story building.

“We are at zero,” she said. “It will be hard until you will find a vaccine.”

A recent law made to protect Machu Picchu's ruins, which sets a limit of 675 tourists each day, may also hurt hotels, owners say. Before, 6,000 tourists arrived on the best days and about 4,000 in the reduced season.

“It means they'll come in the morning and leave in the afternoon,” Guzmán said.

Tourism entrepreneurs in Cuzco believe things could normalize in 2022, but expect that in 2021 they'll barely reach 30% of what they earned in 2019. For the present time, they are focused on attracting business travelers, local tourists and when possible some visitors from close by countries.

"Our first strategy is to keep the service at the cheapest possible cost, trying to optimize the partnership between price and quality,” said Carlos Milla, president of the Cuzco Chamber of Tourism.

Many hotel staff were let go in the beginning of the pandemic in March, but their employers have started calling them again.

Cleydy Auca, who graduated as an administrator but cleans hotel rooms, said she was rehired a week ago at Peru's minimum wage.