We take our time on these stairs. These stone-cobbled steps — all of which have been neatly designed, layered, and stacked by Inca hands — ingrain the 7,900-foot mountain we currently climb. Our breathing quickens. Our excitement follows.
Our tour guide waves us over to a higher path. We pass under bamboo shoots and bushes. Birds whistle a tune, their songs echoing across the mountain range. “I want you all to have the best experience,” he says, “when you first lay eyes on these ruins.”
One of the Seven Wonders of the World and considered one of the most important heritage sites in the world, it is tucked away, hidden among the sleeping mountains, only to be found in the Sacred Valley of ancient Peru. After a week of traveling, conversing and trading with locals, and touring the countryside along the Andes Mountains, we’re finally here.
A Talk About Peak Tourism
I sat down with GEE tour guide, translator, and entrepreneur, Alejandro “Aleks” Leiva, a Peruvian native who has more than 22 years of experience in hotel management and the travel industry within Peru. Aleks works with Intrepid, a tour guide company that supports Peruvian natives by connecting local family businesses to international tour groups.
Aleks and I briefly discuss the tourism industry and the significance of Machu Picchu in Cusco, Peru. Some parts have been edited for clarity and length.
DeAnna: How much does Peru depend on tourism?
Aleks: I believe it impacts around 7% of Peru’s GDP. However, I can tell you for sure that tourism is not the first economic activity in the country. The first one is actually mining — of copper, gold, zinc, iron, silver, oil, natural gas, and much more. Mining is the most important industry.
The second most important economic activity is agriculture. Then fishing. Then the service industry. And then tourism. Even though Machu Picchu is popular and employs a lot of people, it’s not a big, big economical activity. France, for example, attracts about 100 million tourists a year. We barely got 3.5 million last year. That’s a huge difference.
D: Would you say Peru attracts a very niche market in terms of tourism?
A: Yeah. It’s not that hard introducing people of different cultures to Peru, especially on these tours where trips are organized for people. The visitors are already open to a new experience, and they’re expecting to learn something new. And when you teach them how things are here — what they should do, what they shouldn’t do — they just observe it and respect that.
D: We heard that by 2020 the main tourist destination, Machu Picchu, is going to be closed to the public. Is that true?
A: That is a big rumor, but honestly, I do not think that it will close completely. Rather, I believe entry will be very restricted.
Machu Picchu is sacred and well-known. There are certain rules to keep it orderly. One of them is to limit the number of people visiting. Once upon a time, the National Institute of Culture, which oversees our archaeological sites, didn’t keep track of the number of visitors. And at one random check, they realized there were 6,000 to 7,000 people in a whole day. That’s nearly three times the amount of people allowed, which is supposed to be 2,500 a day.
In response, they shut it down: Machu Picchu was closed in 2010 for two days. After that, they re-engineered the entrance process. Now, tickets are numbered. Instead of the whole day, tourists now visit for half a day. And authorities make sure that 2,500 are on the first shift, and 2,500 are on the second shift — so you have 5,000 visitors per day but only 2,500 people are there at one time.
Some other places within the city have been closed off, so that people cannot walk there. And that is a dramatic change, because when I started leading tours in 2007, Machu Picchu was completely open. You could walk anywhere — there were no fences, no ropes, nothing. Now, every time I come back, there’s more and more places shut off to the public. Now, there is a rumor about a project to put in a dock or viewpoint so visitors could go walk above Machu Picchu and take photos without having to enter the ruins. I’m not really sure how that will work because that means they will have to dig on holy land to build the dock.
D: If Machu Picchu ever was closed though, would that be a huge impact on the economy?
A: No. Mining is our oil. It keeps 10% of the people economically active. And tourists only affect 7% of the GDP. It might cause an impact, but not a huge one.
D: That’s interesting to hear. Because now, in many places around the world, the name "Machu Picchu" is famous.
A: Especially after winning the title of one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2007! That was really cool because I remember I was driving towards Machu Picchu and stopped at an internet cafe you pass on the way there. There were computers with a website where you can just go in, register yourself, and then vote for Machu Picchu to be one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. And so I was encouraging people: “Guys, you know Machu Picchu might be one of the Seven Wonders!”
“Oh, yes, Aleks!” they’d say, "let’s make a line, and vote." It took only five minutes or maybe less. And so we did, and — yeah!
D: And so you contributed to this — helping Machu Picchu become one of the Seven Wonders of the World?
A: Yeah! I believe it was on June 17 that the media was about to globally announce the New Seven Wonders of the World. There was a big screen in the main square in Cusco by midday. And so, my tour group and I decided to go. And they were announcing like, “And number one… number two... Machu Picchu!” *gasps*
Everyone was shouting, “We made it. We voted for that!” People who didn’t know each other — local people, people from all over the world — began drinking, people are starting to get beers. *he imitates a cheer and then smiles* It was so good.
D: That’s amazing - to be able to be a part of that!
A: Yeah! People started visiting more, and more, and more. The government took advantage of that because I remember the entrance fee used to be $20 for tourists. The next year, it was $50.
Same for Peruvian people — the price went up. Honestly, Machu Picchu is expensive for Peruvian people. But for travelers, it’s not too expensive compared to other popular tourist destinations for international tourists.
D: Have the prices for Machu Picchu gone down at all?
A: No, they’ll never go down! They’ve found some other ways to make money. For instance, your ticket before was for visiting Machu Picchu and all the sites around, like the Huayna Picchu peak. Now, you have to pay an extra fee.
D: What are your personal views on the future for Peru’s economy as a whole?
A: Due to the better access to education and universities like ESAN, we are becoming more competitive. So, in 10, 15, or 20 years, I believe Peru will probably be one of the most important economies in the region.
Machu in Quechua, an indigenous language in Peru, means “old” or “ancient”. Picchu means “mountain”.
The rumor of this sacred land being closed by 2020 still looms for both tourists and local Peruvians. Will one of the New Seven Wonders of the World close for good? No one knows for sure.
As a UNLV business program, we are honored to have had the ability to visit this cherished site. As a cohort, we are grateful to have experienced this once-in-a-lifetime journey in the beautiful country of Peru. The ability to experience the culture, the startup activity, and the breathtaking sights of ancient cities within Peru has broadened our youthful knowledge of entrepreneurship, innovation, and more.
As a result, there is always more to discover, to question, to learn, and eventually grow from when traveling abroad.
GEE’s Cohort 8 sincerely appreciates all funding and support from private donors, the UNLV CSUN Government, and dedicated staff such as entrepreneurship professors Janet Runge and Huston Pullen.
That wraps up The Global Entrepreneurship Experience Program’s travels abroad this year. Thanks for joining the ride!
The Lee Business School’s Global Entrepreneurship Program, or GEE for short, is a four-year curriculum that teaches students of any discipline the necessary skills in creating and scaling a business.