Hundreds of tourists were stranded near Machu Picchu, Peru’s most visited site, over the weekend after protesters blocked train and bus routes to the site and closed local shops and restaurants in Aguas Calientes, the gateway to Machu Picchu, in the Cusco region of the country. . Some visitors posted videos on social media asking for help. Police evacuated around 700 tourists on Saturday. Many left without seeing the site.
Protesters had taken to the streets on Thursday to demand the government cancel a contract allowing a company to sell tickets to Machu Picchu for the first time. Tickets were previously sold through the culture office in Cusco, which is controlled by the regional government.
Protesters agreed to a 24-hour “truce” on Tuesday to take part in talks with government officials. While Machu Picchu is officially open, train services to Aguas Calientes and buses transporting tourists to the citadel remain suspended. The US Embassy advised travelers who want to try to reach the site by other means to make sure they get enough food and any medicine they may need.
Machu Picchu, believed to be a 15th-century escape for Inca royalty, saw about 2.2 million visitors last year, down from pre-pandemic levels of 4.6 million. Peru is trying to encourage tourists to visit other ancient sites, in part to avoid overcrowding, which UNESCO has warned could damage parts of its structure.
Who is protesting and why are they angry?
Protesters include tour operators, tour guides, activists and residents in the Cusco region. They are opposed to a private company profiting from ticket sales at Machu Picchu and claim the company, Joinnus, an event marketing platform, was chosen to manage sales last year through a corrupt deal with Culture Minister Leslie Urteaga, which she denies.
Elvis La Torre, mayor of Aguas Calientes, said the government did not consult local authorities or residents about the new online system.
Distrust of President Dina Bolluarte’s government runs deep in Cusco, a heavily indigenous region with countless pre-Columbian ruins. Ms Boluarte took office in late 2022 after her predecessor was ousted and arrested following an attempt to dissolve the Peruvian Congress, sparking widespread nationwide protests to which she responded with a crackdown that left 49 civilians dead, mostly in indigenous areas.
What is the government trying to do?
The government says the new ticketing system aims to make sales more transparent. It claims that “mafias” with ties to the Cusco regional government are diverting a portion of the tickets to sell on the black market, depriving public coffers of revenue and making it harder to measure the actual number of visitors to the site.
The government is also trying to implement a “dynamic” system where the daily visitor limit changes throughout the year.
The company that busses tourists to Machu Picchu typically reports higher numbers of tourists per day than official ticket sales, according to the congressional tourism committee. The national auditor’s office found that in 2021 and 2022, 70,000 to 80,000 visitors to Machu Picchu were not counted by the regional cultural office, representing a loss of about $2 million annually.
Where are the negotiations now?
The protesters want the Minister of Culture to resign and the contract with Joinnus to be cancelled. On Tuesday, the culture ministry announced it would transfer the new ticketing system to a platform managed by the central government, with input from the Cusco regional government.
Ms Urteaga said it would take “a reasonable period of time” to transition to a new, state-run system. “We can’t go back to the previous system,” he told X, formerly of Twitter. We must have a safe, transparent and objective platform.”
Joinnus said she would agree to end her contract early.
Mr. La Torre, the mayor, proposed updating the regional government’s online platform for ticket sales to ensure transparency. “We will agree to modernize the culture ministry’s sales system,” he said in a video posted online, but only if the process was “transparent” and “communicated to interested parties.”
It was unclear whether the protesters would continue their protest after the truce ended at midnight on Tuesday.
Hasn’t this happened before?
Peru is rife with social conflict and it is not uncommon for rural residents to block roads to draw media attention to their demands and pressure the authorities to negotiate.
In the past decade, protesters have blocked access to Machu Picchu several times in efforts to secure higher wages for teachers and health workers, lower fares for rail services or help for farmers during a severe fertilizer shortage.
In late 2022 and early last year, tourism in much of southern Peru, including Machu Picchu, ground to a halt for several weeks during political unrest after Ms Boluarte took office.
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