By Gustavo Pinto
The rules for visiting Machu Picchu changed in 2019. One of the top cultural destinations in the whole of Latin America (which in 2018 received more than 1.5 million visitors, 17% more than in the previous year) fears that the centuries-old ruins of the Inca communities might not be able to resist excessive numbers of tourists. Over and above the number of visitors it receives, controversies about this sacred site being transformed into selfies for social networks ended up affecting the destination’s policy of tourist use. Pre-established times, incentives for visiting at alternative times, changes in ticket prices… Peru has been testing various strategies for responsibly conserving its greatest cultural asset.
Machu Picchu may be the most iconic Latin American case in the current battle against overtourism worldwide, but we know that visitor limits are being exceeded in cities such as Barcelona and Venice and that this is affecting not only the experience of tourists but especially the everyday life of local residents. Other destinations receive relevant numbers of visitors in the Caribbean and South America, but in absolute numbers no Latin American country or city is on the list of the most visited sites in the world – not even the example given in this article, Machu Picchu.
But does this mean that Latin America’s tourist destinations are not suffering with overtourism? The answer is clearly No, it doesn’t! The distance between the number of visitors to Latin America in absolute terms relative to the European and Asian numbers may conceal Latin America when it comes to global discussions about overtourism. Even without the volume of visitors who come from other continents, our cultural and natural attractions may still be facing overtourism and in ways that have an even greater impact and are often irreversible.
Social and environmental changes affect every destination that tourists visit, regardless of the volume of visitors to the locality. Moreover, while the extent of the impact (greater or less; positive or negative) is fluid and can be estimated at any given time, it varies in accordance with the tolerance levels of those affected by the outcome of tourism.
We then come to the concept of the ‘limits of acceptable change’ (LAC) that puts into perspective the impacts and those who are impacted, meaning that the gauge of overtourism varies in accordance with the reality of each destination. The social, natural and cultural conditions of the place must be understood, evaluated and classified according to what is acceptable, while the impact-management goals must be similarly dealt with according to what is achievable.
From the perspective of impacts and of what is considered tolerable by both the cultural and natural resources and by the communities found in the tourist destinations on our continent, it is clear to us that ‘overtourism’ in Latin America is indeed emerging. How are our seas (including their fauna and flora) being managed by destinations and how much responsibility is being assumed by the Caribbean cruise industry, for example? How is the Amazon forest reacting to its interaction with those who visit it? Are our cultural monuments benefiting from tourist activity?
Failure to monitor and manage the impact can result in destinations becoming the victims of overtourism, even if their load capacity, as identified by technical studies, is greater than they actually receive. This is how we Latin Americans should conduct the debate about overtourism in our daily lives – we must take advantage of the fact that the (still!) absolute numbers are can be managed when compared to what happens in other parts of the world. After all, we want our industry to keep on growing for ever, so that more and more travellers can get to know the riches of our continent and leave only positive impacts on the places they visit.
-> To find out more about acceptable limits of change (LAC) read this article from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Although it is aimed at the conservation of natural resources, the methodology can be easily adapted to managing impacts on cultural heritage.
* Gustavo Pinto
M.A. in Responsible Tourism – Manchester Metropolitan University, UK
Advisor in Responsible Tourism for WTM Latin America
Director of Inverted America Journeys