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Rosa Codina is originally from Peru. She joined Oxford Brookes in 2011 as a research student in the Oxford Brookes Business School. Her thesis title is 'The role of tourism in altering the structure of power relations and facilitating sustainable socio-cultural development for indigenous communities in Peru.'
As part of my PhD dealing with sustainable tourism, I spent several weeks collecting primary data in Peru. My investigation deals with the socio-cultural impacts of tourism on Andean host communities. After spending the first year of my PhD reading about tourism in Cuzco and the surrounding village of Pisac, it was exiting to finally get there, see the sights and meet the people.
I collected primary data mainly through participant observation and semi-structured interviews. This meant I spent most of my days walking around talking to market sellers, street vendors, guesthouse owners and restaurant staff. In this sense, conducting qualitative research gave me the opportunity to soak up my surroundings and engage in fascinating conversation with locals. Strangely, in a country mainly known for its archaeological ruins and its past, it was through the living and their personal stories about very real 21stcentury dilemmas, that I obtained a real insight into local culture and livelihoods. With this in mind, I conducted participant observation at both popular tourist spots, such as Machu Picchu, as well as less tourist frequented spaces, such as food markets and remote indigenous communities. Recording observations in these different spaces gave me a more comprehensive picture of how tourism affects local lives in different ways.
At popular Cuzco tourist zones, shop owners and local guides were usually eager to paint a picture of Peru as a secure and harmonious multi-ethnic country, benefiting from tourism. Undoubtedly, tourism has brought many benefits for host communities. Through conversing with a lady called Rosa, a local restaurant owner in Pisac, I found out that the girl selling potatoes at the local market was actually studying at university to become a mechanical engineer. This was all thanks to the business brought in by hotels and restaurants to which she supplied potatoes on a daily basis.
However, others had less favourable opinions regarding tourism. One day, while walking on the streets of Pisac, I met an architect who was taking pictures of old colonial buildings. We established a conversation and she told me she was taking pictures of these buildings because she feared they would soon be demolished. Talking with her and other locals, I discovered that due to the rise in tourism, there had been a boom in hotel construction, leading to fading colonial buildings being sold and demolished to both local and foreign entrepreneurs. Similarly, after becoming acquainted with some Pisac fruit and vegetable sellers, they confessed they felt discriminated against as they had recently been banned from selling their produce in the main town square where the arts and crafts tourist market now operates on a daily basis. They believed they were being shielded from tourists’ view.
Whilst food sellers felt shielded from tourists’ view, others grabbed tourists’ attention without asking for it. This was the case of traditional Quechua indigenous authorities. Quechua authorities descend from their communities to Pisac in order to attend the weekly Sunday Quechua mass. The mass is well publicised by guides, which means the church gets overrun by tourists who enthusiastically snap away with their cameras at Varayocs (indigenous authorities). It was striking to notice that half of the church seats were occupied by tourists whilst locals had to stand on the sides or even outside of church. However, as is often the case in life, things are rarely black or white. Taking advantage of the presence of tourists, I could see indigenous girls in traditional attire posing for paid tourist photographs outside of the church.
As exciting as it was to conduct primary research in the Andes, field research can sometimes be unpredictable. This proved to be the case when I fell suddenly ill with brucella, a bacterial food infection. My illness meant having to leave Pisac earlier than expected and return to Lima for prolonged medical treatment. However, even this less than desirable episode proved to be an eye-opening experience. It gave me access to spaces I would normally not have had access to, such as the emergency room of a public hospital. This was definitely a wakeup call to the coarse reality of poverty in Peru. Public hospitals are severely underfunded, which translates into poor sanitary conditions, a lack of staff and overworked doctors. This is why most people who can afford it visit private clinics. I was fortunate enough to visit a private clinic in Lima where I received proper treatment, but this is not an option for most Peruvians living in rural areas. I kept notes on my stay at the hospital and I plan to incorporate these into my thesis. If the conditions at the public hospital may be taken as an indicator of any changes in the quality of host communities’ lives as a result of tourism, then my observations present a rather gloomy picture.
Nevertheless, I want to end this account on a positive note. Even though it was an unfortunate experience to fall ill in the middle of my fieldwork, it showed me how considerate and helpful people in Pisac could be. Everyone was willing to lend a hand, from giving me herbal tea, to checking on me at night time and helping me with doctor visits. In a strange way, falling ill meant I developed closer friendships with people I may not have otherwise interacted with on such an intimate level. It also meant I had the opportunity to hear personal family stories about Pisac and its fascinating history.