This is not a new story. In fact, I think this question is almost as old as tourism itself: is tourism destroying those things it wants to admire?
Peru is full of incredible, unique cultures and places to visit, and tourism seems to be on the rise. One of the tourist attractions that is attracting more and more visitors are the Uros floating islands on Lake Titicaca.
The people who live on these islands have been living a simple life for generations. They construct their small islands by cutting cubes of reed root from shallow areas of the lake, which are then tied together and layers of reeds are laid over the top. Their houses are similarly constructed from reeds, as are their boats, and reeds are also used to fuel their cooking fires. The men fish and the women weave, and it’s been the same for hundreds of years.
Except that now the women buy their clothes from nearby Puno, and spend their time making handicrafts to sell to the myriads of tourists who visit every day. There’s a semicircular reed seat in the centre of each island which is used as an outdoor classroom for the tourists, and some islands have watchtowers which were built so visitors can get a good view of the surrounding islands. The water is becoming polluted by motorboats, and the island’s barter economy is rapidly dying because tourists buy handicrafts with useful cash.
However, the fact that tourists are paying to visit the islands has meant that the government has begun to take more notice of this previously ignored community. The islanders pay taxes and in return the government has made sure that there’s a health centre and schools for the children. The islanders now have things like solar panels, which in turn means that they have electric light – oh, and satellite TV.
So tourism has brought both essentials and luxuries to the lives of the Uros people. They still live on floating islands in the middle of the bay, and they still wear the iconic brightly-coloured skirts, but life has definitely changed. A major part of their day is spend entertaining visitors – explaining what life is like, showing off their houses, selling their handicrafts, and singing as the visitors depart on their reed boat trip.
I suppose the question is, how much do we want to preserve culture, and is it worth preserving if it has changed so much that it is almost unrecognisable? Personally, I enjoyed seeing the floating islands, and I’m glad that life has improved for the inhabitants. And I suppose change would have come anyway, perhaps the islanders would have chosen an easier life on the mainland if tourists hadn’t started to visit them.