As Peru’s unrest chases away visitors, many in tourism fear for their livelihood
By Mitra Taj, Genevieve Glatsky and Julie Turkewitz
As protests consumed Peru this month, hundreds of foreign tourists were trapped near Machu Picchu, the ancient Incan site that has become the Andean country’s No. 1 tourist attraction.
In recent days, though, visitors were finally able to travel home, following a suspension of demonstrations that reopened the airport and nearby roads to allow for the passage of food and travelers.
But as they leave the country, prospective travelers cancel their trips and a new regional and perhaps national strike gets underway, the abrupt shutter of the tourism industry has dealt a serious blow to tens of thousands of Peruvians whose livelihoods rely on the travel economy.
It’s not just that “everybody started canceling,” said Nancy Bautista, 41, a tour guide with two children in the department of Cusco, home to Machu Picchu. As soon as the tourists left, protesters again closed roads in the surrounding region, creating shortages of fuel and food.
It’s just one example of the financial toll that more than 10 days of nationwide unrest has exacted on Peruvians. While Cusco felt calm Monday, Bautista said, supplies of chicken in the city were dwindling. Beef was completely sold out. Gas prices shot up.
The challenge of providing essential goods is setting off widespread concern in a region where the worst drought in more than 50 years and high fertilizer prices are already creating food shortages.
In the department of Cusco, with a capital of the same name, high numbers of people struggle to get enough to eat, with nearly 20% of children under age 5 facing chronic malnutrition, according to government figures.
Cusco has approximately 2,000 tourism agencies, more than 1,000 hotels and 25 rural communities that rely on tourism, but the past few days have felt like the arduous visitorless months of the pandemic, Bautista said.
“With all of this, it’s going back again to that time where everything was uncertain,” she added.
In 2019, visits to Machu Picchu hit 1.5 million people, most of them foreigners. The number of tourists climbed so high that many feared for its physical integrity, and the government began limiting entry.
But Rolando Mendoza, Cusco’s head of tourism, said that the regional tourism sector had been hit hard by the pandemic and the government’s strict lockdowns, and was still recovering when the protests began.
This year, officials had hoped to get at least 1 million visitors. Mendoza estimated that because of the protests, it will be more like 700,000 to 800,000 visitors by year’s end.
Protests erupted in Peru in early December after the country’s leftist leader, Pedro Castillo, attempted to dissolve Congress and install a new government that would rule by decree — actions that fell outside the limits placed on the president by the constitution.
The move was widely condemned as an attempted coup and Castillo was arrested on charges of rebellion. His vice president, Dina Boluarte, a former ally, took office.
But Castillo’s supporters, many of them from poor, rural regions, have taken to the streets to demand new general elections, with many also calling for his restitution, sometimes closing down highways with burning tires, vandalizing government buildings and throwing rocks in the streets.
At least 26 people have died as a result of the protests, according to the national ombudsman’s office, and various human rights groups, including Amnesty International, have accused the police and military of a disproportionate use of force against protesters.
In clashes between the military and demonstrators Thursday in the city of Ayacucho, nine protesters were killed, including a 15-year-old boy.
At least 356 civilians and 290 police officers have been injured during the protests, according to the ombudsman.
By Monday, the number of protests had dwindled across the country, though groups were calling for a fresh strike starting this week, making it unclear if the country was seeing an end to unrest — or just a brief respite.
Since taking office, Boluarte, a leftist from a largely poor region, has attempted to strike a conciliatory tone, calling for unity in a deeply divided nation and addressing the nation in Quechua, the Indigenous language spoken by many of Castillo’s supporters.
But she has also declared a state of emergency, suspending many civil liberties, and sent the military into the streets in some places — actions that seem to be alienating the very protesters she is trying to calm.
On Sunday, in interviews with the national press, she said that protester deaths should be investigated by the military’s justice system instead of by public prosecutors, a move that could mean lighter sentences for soldiers accused of abuse. The declaration was immediately criticized by legal experts, who said a previous case in the Supreme Court, as well as international law, had made it clear that allegations of human rights abuses should be investigated in the civilian system.
A day before, the country’s anti-terrorism police raided the offices of a leftist party and of a campesino organization in downtown Lima, detaining several protesters for hours.
Police accused them of planning to commit violence at demonstrations, showing reporters weapons like slingshots and machetes confiscated from protesters, though the protesters said these were planted. Human rights groups denounced the raids as an illegal intimidation tactic by authorities.
As the raid unfolded, Boluarte addressed the crisis in a televised presentation with the head of the armed forces, a figure who is supposed to be focused narrowly on external threats in Peru.
“I am very sorry for the deaths of these people,” she said, speaking of the dead protesters. “We are building bridges to be able to meet with the leaders of these social movements. But in violence, you cannot dialogue. Calm down.”
Barring the possibility of Castillo’s reinstatement, protesters have called for new elections to be held as quickly as possible, while Congress recently voted down an effort to move them up to December 2023, far ahead of their scheduled 2026 date.
An Ipsos poll for America Television that was released Sunday showed about 85% of respondents supported new general elections, and 33% also supported what the poll called Castillo’s “coup,” a figure that rose to 52% in rural Peru.
Another poll showed only 17% were satisfied with how Peru’s democracy is working, the lowest level since at least 2006.
Even among some whose livelihoods were being upended by the protests, there was some support.
In interviews, people who work in the region’s tourism industry said they sympathized with the protesters’ motivations, though they disagreed with the violence and hoped that a solution would come soon.
“Among friends who work in tourism we talk and there’s always this concern about political issues that can result in these kinds of blockades,” said David Mora, 41, who runs a small tourism company.
“But these strikes have been very aggressive,” he added. “These haven’t been normal protests, and there’s been a lot of repression from the authorities, the police and the army, too.”