Come On People, Now Let’s Help Preservation
Despite how simple it now is to see the natural wonders of the world online, I hope it is still agreed upon that visiting them in person is incomparable. The most stunning sites are global destinations in our culture of tourism. Among them is an intersection between the significance of geological and cultural sites, which both offer a fascinating window into history for visitors. Recently, it has become clear that there needs to be a focus on the preservation and protection of sites of all kinds, whether they are historic in culture, archaeology, geology, or ecology. Researchers have recognized the fragility of some of the world’s most “instagram worthy” destinations. In tandem, the underestimated millennial generation has pushed for significantly more funding to go towards efforts of conservation. As they balance this goal alongside the complex tourism market, many have struggled to find compromises between sustainability and a capitalist mentality.
When tackling such a broad issue, we often think of a historic “site” as a distinct physical location with some historical significance we can see at a first glance. However, sites as large as those on UNESCO’s most recent World Heritage List can be found in developing countries with vague boundaries and complicated roles in their environment. In this case, preservation needs to adapt to more factors and cannot be applied as a “one-size-fits-all” solution. One of the most complex examples is a massive site along 30,000 kilometers of the eastern coast of South America. The Qhapaq Ñan is a road system dating back to the Inca Empire that goes through the Andes Mountain Range and six countries in South America, including Ecuador. Due to its size, focusing on one country as an example offers a clearer understanding than if the site were to be considered as a whole. To understand tourism as it relates to sustainability, we look at the parts of the road that fall within the modern borders of Ecuador.
The incredible history behind it is described in a book by John Hyslop, entitled The Inka Road System. Its unique engineering structure, diverse geography, and cultural significance are simply stunning. The roads were at the center of an immense political process to unite the Inca empire through routes of trade, communication, and travel, comparable to America’s Transcontinental Railroad. Throughout the empire, the routes reached almost all locations on the continent, and became a “North Star” for villages along it as well.
Archaeologists have already proven the need for better preservation because parts of the Qhapac Ñan are used by local citizens and foreign tourists as a modern road. Educational and research opportunities also depend on the existence of the Qhapac Ñan in its best quality. Priceless artifacts and related cultural history exist in constant jeopardy until they can be consistently protected. But how are these qualities recognized, if at all, by the government and society within the movement for sustainability?
One issue is the need for compromise between people and organizations at the Qhapaq Ñan. Yet, an important question that has not been asked is how we, as Americans, play into preservation at any site we visit. By thinking about this, preservation techniques can evolve more effectively and realistically. Here I suggest that the path towards preservation in Ecuador is affected greatly by the impact of foreign tourists at historical sites like the Qhapac Ñan.
It is also important to take into consideration those who have personal and monetary investments in the site. They include modern descendents of the Inca, tour operators, international tourists, and international governments. Each of these groups have recognized a valuable human quality explained by Josè Barreiro in his writing for the Andean Journal. Barreiro reveals not only the cultural, but personal ways that preservation along Qhapaq Ñan matters to modern communities. His personal account recalls a conversation with a local boy and his father, both of local Quechua descent, who offer a tour to him and a local archaeologist. Barreiro writes, “To him, the road is sacred, it is alive, and everything about it is to be respected, protected. ‘See here,’ [the boy’s father] says, pointing where the painted stone has been disturbed. ‘Thieves; they come in the night and try to pry it loose,’ he explains, his countenance troubled,”. By showing such a human narrative, research may become more relevant to the average tourist. The goal of sustainable preservation is to protect natural resources, but for more than environmental prestige. Families living close to Qhapac Ñan also call these ruins their home and can find their own history within them. The Qhapac Ñan is then that much more significant, particularly more than that of simply a tourist destination.
In terms of the current preservation of the Inca Roads, we must understand the site’s current environment. It is one of particular interest to foreign visitors, and is therefore subject to the constant wear and tear of human feet and mechanical wheels. By learning about the nature of these tours and who participates in them, evidence is revealed about how we all function as pawns in global preservation efforts. Here, I looked at the kinds of tourism websites available to people who speak English and those who speak Spanish. Though I assumed there would be some differences in marketing, I was surprised to see that the tours often differed as well.
The first Spanish website describes a unique initiative in Peru that investigated the relationship between tourism and evaluation of site deterioration. The page offers information about the Chilean commune and port city of Arica. It reports on a 2016 expedition to Cusco, Peru to investigate the nature of “community tourism” along the Qhapaq Ñan. By collaborating with the nearby Ministries of Culture and Tourism in Peru, a group of executives in the tourism industry gathered information about the role of local heritage, stakeholders, and self-management in the site. In this example, we notice that when corporate officials are from the country they invest in, they tend to focus more on planning for long term success. The cultural value is known personally and is therefore respected by the native tourism industry which then lessens their footprint on a deteriorating site. It is a prime example of the actions South American countries have taken to protect their World Heritage sites within the changing tourism market.
Another Spanish site mirrors this approach and supports the theory that local tourists and residents do interact with historical sites differently than international visitors. The website, created by the government of Chile’s Tourism Service, explains how they hope the Qhapac Ñan will progress, “que apunta al desarrollo del turismo sustentable con las comunidades, el entorno y [la historia de la gente], ligada desde tiempos precolombinos a la minería.”. This translates to say that they want sustainable tourism to work with local communities and the existing histories of the people there. To read words as clear as these is to understand, at least slightly, the thoughts of those who were raised on the continent where the Qhapac Ñan is found. We have to recognize this clear difference in attitude and behavior when it comes to environmental protection and how it is publicized. This is what is responsible for the differing effects tourists have on the roads over time.
The market for international visitors however, clearly represents alternate values. The first of two online sources in English is a page on the website Positiv Turismo. With an easy to use format and brightly colored pictures, it advertises travel opportunities around the Qhapaq Ñan roads. The page appropriately targets foreign tourists and pretty noticeably focuses on American travelers. Short descriptions of the tours create an entertaining image of travel, including activities like biking and hiking to create the experience of a true “adventure”. While this could reach a genuinely curious traveler hoping to learn about Ecuador, it contributes to a cycle of ‘temporary’ tourism. As this article suggests, such a difference in the kinds of tourists visiting forms a conflict if not recognized when drafting plans for preservation. According to the sites, an English demographic cares more about the quality of an elaborate vacation and can then be marketed to by risking the structural integrity of a site.
Final proof of the difference between sustainable and ‘standard’ tourism is on the site for Chaska Tours. It is a last look into the glamorized international tourism industry as it applies to English speaking travelers. The site offers tours in Ecuador and its surrounding countries with a similar writing style, using vibrant branding and photography to highlight the promised thrill for visitors. A clear choice of words introduces the company's promise of, “limitless trekking opportunities along ancient routes once transited by the Incas.”. This brings up the question of whether or not sustainable tourism legislation is being created with loopholes to allow for these “adventures” literally on top of such a historic site. Regardless of politics though, the nature in which American versus Hispanic tourists travel to the Qhapaq Ñan is clearly an essential aspect to consider.
To tie these observations into modern issues once again proves the true need for reform to preservation efforts at archaeological sites. To properly preserve the Qhapaq Ñan will allow it to flourish, but without a proper steps being taken, its future for enjoyment and study will be seriously threatened. Its examples of biological, ecological, and engineering diversity are always at the mercy of the management of the site. By thinking about the publicity, preservation, and treatment of the Qhapaq Ñan, this section in Ecuador can be seen as an example for global sustainability efforts which are so closely affected by international tourists.