In Peru’s Cuzco, pandemic devastates tourism and economy

CUZCO, PERU (AP) – 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 one of the most sought-after tour 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. More than 226,000 people who make crafts or work as waiters, hotel staff and taxi drivers, have been plunged into an economic abyss. Merchants said they have lost more than two-thirds of their income.

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

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

Artist Elizabeth Correa waits for clients to buy her paints amid the COVID-19 pandemic Cusco, Peru. PHOTO: AP

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, as well as the grandchildren of United States (US) explorer Hiram Bingham, who photographed Machu Picchu in 1911.

But the arrival of the novel coronavirus in March and travel restrictions turned Cuzco, which received more than 1.8 million international visits annually, into a near ghost town. Only Spanish and Quechua can be heard in Cuzco’s main square, something unimaginable before the pandemic when it resembled a small Babel with tourists speaking a multitude of languages.

Hotels, travel agencies, jewellery stores, restaurants, cafes, chocolate shops and dollar exchange houses are all closed by the square. Only a few souvenir shops remain open but 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 two weeks ago. She pays USD2,100 a month in rent for the shop and before the pandemic, on a good day, she would earn up to USD300. Her two sons have dropped out of college because the family ran out of money.

Ruth Rodríguez, owner of the tourism agency Ruthbela Travel Tours, said that thousands of tourists would normally come on June 24 for Inti Raymi, the Incan festival of the sun. But this year the streets were empty.

“The streets seemed to be crying because there was no one,” said Rodríguez, 37, who has accumulated USD13,000 in debt.

Peru’s central government created a USD143 million fund as a guarantee for banks to loan money to the tourism sector, but Rodríguez said she was recently denied USD5,000 by a bank. She contended the fund only favours large business groups.