By Dr. Thomas J. Bussen
“Take only memories, leave only footprints.”
– Chief Seattle (1786-1866)1
The year is 2016, and a Carnival cruise liner is departing the waters of Southern Italy. Rough currents and winds have pushed the cruise liner off course, and close—too close—to the small marina in northeast Sicily. A cruise passenger films as the 133,500-ton ship’s tsunami-like waves make impact. “Oh, my God, the boats are getting crushed!” he shouts in the video. “Oh, my God, that really just happened!”2
The headline? “Giant Cruise Ship Crushes Tiny Marina.” The analogy is lost on few. The cruise industry has come under increasing criticism in recent years, blamed for everything from environmental degradation to squandering precious resources, cultural destruction, and over-tourism.
Locals and nature alike rejoiced when the COVID pandemic halted global cruising. Photos of the Venetian canals, sparkling clean for the first time in decades, populated media sites. The people of Dubrovnik—having recently capped the number of cruise visitors to the city made famous by Game of Thrones—celebrated the near empty streets of their usually packed old town.
Now, as cruise ships begin returning to their favorite haunts, protestors are seeking to rein in the excesses of the multibillion-dollar industry. Venetians, for instance, recently succeeded in banning the ocean liners from the city’s main canal and city center, an important step to protect the city’s fragile lagoon system.3
In place of mass tourism, calls for sustainable tourism are growing louder. The United Nations’ World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) defined sustainability as that which “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”4 Consequently, sustainable tourism emphasizes tourism that values and respects the economic, social, and environmental needs of local communities. According to some of the earliest progenitors of sustainable tourism—scholars Bill Bramwell and Bernard Lane—the concept arose in response to a booming tourism industry that too often damaged environment and society.5
It is—and rightly so—the environmental prong of sustainable development that has received much attention in recent years. Sometimes referred to as “green tourism,” or “eco-tourism,” this seeks to hold actors like mammoth cruise ships accountable for their ecological footprints.
And yet, it is the economic and social prongs of sustainable tourism that also merit attention, but which are all too often ignored. Mainstream cruise liners, for instance, are criticized in part for sending thousands of culturally ignorant passengers onto the mainland for just a few hours, during which time they interact little, if at all, with the local community and similarly contribute minimally to the local economy. At the same time, they have come under sharp criticism for providing staff with low pay and little medical protection, all while requiring that staff work at least 12 hours a day, seven days a week.6 In both cases, the cruise liners face accusations of exploitation and neglecting the economic and social responsibilities of sustainable tourism providers.
In the South American nation of Peru, a cruise industry of its own is decades in the making. Here, we see both a microcosm of the wider issues, but also, in many ways, the key to a more sustainable hospitality industry. We are not talking about the mega capital city of Lima, though that is indeed on the bucket list of many cruise itineraries. Instead, we are talking about remote and chilly Lake Titicaca, and the sister islands of Taquile and Amantaní, which are visited by tourists interested in capturing their slice of “authentic” rural life.
Lake Titicaca, around 400 kilometers southeast of Cusco, is known as the birthplace of the Incans. Located well above 12,000 feet, it is an unlikely cradle of civilization. As Charles C. Mann notes in his award-winning book, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, the waters of the lake moderate the bitter frost that covers most of the surrounding highlands, thus supporting a dense network of ancient civilizations. With 3,205 square miles of water, 41 islands, a rich collection of archeological artifacts, and a sacred place in the Incan cosmovision, it is today one of Peru’s most frequented sites.
From the port city of Puno, visitors jump not on majestic cruise ships, but on small passenger ferries, which take them to a variety of rural communities, including the Uros floating islands—constructed of nothing but reed—and, further afield, to the agrarian islands of Taquile and Amantaní.
At first glance, Taquile may seem beholden to the same mass tourism dynamics as more traditional cruise ports. Ninety-five percent of visitors, for instance, stay on the island for only a few hours, and many spend neither an American dime nor a Peruvian sole while there.7 And yet, in Taquile, something is different; there, the people of the island have staked their claim to the local tourist industry, and in so doing, have steadily improved their economic condition.
Indeed, Taquile Island has long been the poster child of sustainable tourism, part of a broader portfolio in which, writes environmental sociologist Ross Mitchell, Peru has established itself as one of the globe’s leading destinations for ethical, responsible tourism.8
The story begins in 1968, and centers on a United States Peace Corps volunteer named Kevin Healy. Healy, today a professor of international service at the American University in Washington, D.C., served as a government sponsored aid worker to the Taquile people. He convinced the reluctant locals to offer their precious weavings for sale at the Peace Corps’ tourist shop, a world away in Cusco. The products quickly fetched $150. The Peace Corps shop floundered and failed within a few years, but the Taquile people had come to understand the economic value of their ancestral weavings.
At the time, most of the residents of Taquile engaged in subsistence agriculture, producing just enough to eat and survive. They were by almost any standard poor, without access to education or opportunity, much less the so-called modern comforts of home and hearth. As Healy writes, “It was then a remote, forgotten area.”9
As the people of Taquile came to see the value of their once taken-for-granted weaving customs, they had by 1981 opened a community-owned textile shop of their own. Soon, the boats had begun arriving from Puno 25 kilometers away, bringing with them tourists and pocketbooks. The cooperative business split earnings among residents and reinvested a percentage in community goods. Locals scarcely used currency prior to 1968, but by the 1980s were purchasing consumer goods for comfort, agricultural aids to improve yield, and soon, they were also purchasing boats, restaurants, and guest homes to cater to tourist demand.10
Each year tens of thousands of tourists visit Taquile, with its industry further bolstered by the remarkable distinction bestowed by the United Nations’ Scientific and Cultural Organization, which in 2005 declared Taquile a “Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage.” In sharp contrast to the protesting locals in mainstream cruise ports, visitors to Taquile are typically greeted at the picturesque port by a welcoming committee of locals. They are escorted up a short but steep stone pathway, the radiantly blue Lake Titicaca stretching across the horizon and the snowcapped mountains of Bolivia omnipresent in the distance. Reaching the small town square, tourists find the textile collective offering everything from gloves and hats to ponchos, scarves, backpacks, and tablecloths.
A smaller number visit the nearby island Amantaní, which at four square kilometers is nearly twice the size of Taquile. Though slower to develop than Taquile, tourists now visit Amantaní precisely because its local community is seen as even more traditional and authentic than the touristy Taquile.
Despite these successes, both Taquile and Amantaní have engaged in a constant though low-simmering battle against the usurping tendencies of the elite “mainland” tourist providers. Scholars studying the islands report that even today tourist agencies seek to exploit the local islanders by reneging on profit-sharing agreements or underpaying for services rendered. In one notable incident—notable in large part because of the renowned hospitality and nonviolence of the people of Taquile—residents took to blocking their port until underlying disagreements with mainland tour operators were resolved.11
Taquile and Amantaní thus represent successes in the story of sustainable tourism. However, their well-being is fragile. And yet, 89 percent of Taquile residents say they feel in control of the local tourist industry, and they overwhelmingly report satisfaction with the changes wrought in decades past by the explosion of visitors to their little island havens.12 While holding onto centuries, if not millennia, of old customs, the children of both Taquile and Amantani increasingly have the opportunity to travel for higher education—to, if they wish, seek their fortunes in the wider world—while knowing that their homes remain, to use that old travel cliché, “pristine.”
For the responsible tourist, meanwhile, Taquile and Amantaní are prime examples of how tourists and locals can come together in harmony and mutual exchange. A visit there may be no pleasure cruise, but that’s exactly the idea.
Dr. Thomas J. Bussen
Dr. Thomas J. Bussen, with a Doctorate of Business Administration, a JD, and an MBA, is a professor of international business at the African Leadership University in Rwanda and a cross-cultural management coach. He is the author of several cross-cultural books, including Shaping the Global Leader (2019), from which this article is excerpted. He is also the author of The Rising Tide: A Neo-Collectivist Critique of American Individuality (expected, 2022), which makes the case for a more inclusive and globally minded professional ideology. To read more of his cross-cultural and social impact writings, visit biggsandbussen.com.