Be part of the journey
We are a people on the move. Citizen explorers are traipsing all over this planet of ours. Tourism is one of the leading drivers of the economy, international relations, religious understanding and educational development. It is a powerful force in a world filled with political struggles, economic instability, social misunderstanding and environmental fragility.
I just have returned from a trip to the country of Peru. It is, in many ways, a third-world nation seen as mysterious and wild. It houses such places as the rain forest, the Amazon River and the Andes Mountains. Cut off by mountainous terrain, Machu Picchu stands at the end of a long route for tourists, but it is at the heart of a very up-to-date political battle in Peru. These ruins of an ancient Inca Indian community have been named a World Heritage site. It is so remote that it is reached only by a two-lane road, an old Inca trail for trekkers and a small train. A flood washed out the rail line in January, and it took heroics to rebuild a portion of it to keep the tourist trade going. So, for now, large, new Mercedes Benz buses that connect with the train are winding up and down the sharp grades to carry thousands of tourists each day to the dramatic destination.
The tourist brochures warn that it is a strenuous trip and that unless one is fit and ambulatory, they should not consider the journey. The altitude is high, and I found it hard to climb the thousands of steps that compose the main Machu Picchu site. And, thus, we were stunned to find a woman in a wheelchair sitting near a sundial on one of the high peaks. I have never seen a happier face in all my life. The heavens had indeed opened up to her. ‘How had she gotten there?’ we asked each other. And then we saw the amazing gift her friends were giving her. To descend the mountain, a young man bent forward and her other friends backed the wheelchair, with her in it, onto his back. The steps were irregular, steep and narrow, and the feat was beyond belief. Yes, people have found out about the wonders of the world and will go through amazing rigors to see them.
In a life of exploration, the whole planet is not a charming Disney World. But, people who have seen places that fit their comfort zone are now pushing into more challenging venues. Such trips necessitate taking immunization shots, putting up with questionable food and water and the hassle of ever-present airport security systems. The destination must be unique and authentic for tourists to go to such lengths. If a place looks and feels just like home, why leave home?
There is only one Machu Picchu, and people want to see it. Those in Peru who have grievances that they want the government to recognize know the economic power of Machu Picchu. During our visit, the farmers called a 24-hour strike to protest the government’s taxation of water used to irrigate their farms. They rolled giant boulders onto the narrow road and cut trees down to lay across it. All incoming and outgoing activity was forced to a halt. Last week, another citizens’ group observed a 48-hour strike to protest the shipping of Peruvian oil to Mexico, as opposed to keeping it for local use. More big rocks, more felled trees, more frustrated tour operators, mad tourists and more financial loss to local people. These protesters know where to hit investment and public pride to get attention.
People want to experience what they have seen on television and the Internet. Without such exposure, how would we understand the dynamics of the rain forest, the local needs of a mountainous people or the challenges to the environment? As we travel, we find we have much in common with all human beings and we grow to appreciate, not just tolerate, our differences. Tourism is a necessary business in this age of connected, complex and diverse global communities.
Southern Indiana may feel like home to us, but it has a unique and interesting character for visitors. What do we want to show the world? What will they know of us when they leave? Is there a role for each of us working with the convention and visitors bureau? What have we done to make the tourists’ journeys worth their time, effort and money? Tourists are ready and willing. Are we going to be part of their journey?