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Associate Professor at Mount Royal University

 

Mass travel to Peru is relatively new and little is known about the travelers to Machu Picchu (Costa & Baur, 2001).  The purpose of this paper to present portions of an exploratory study carried out on the perceptions of Machu Picchu by tourists to the area.

 

Background and Study Objectives

 

In May of 2009, I along with my assistant Elena Carbajara brought a group of 13 senior Bachelors of Applied Ecotourism and Outdoor Leadership students from Mount Royal University in Calgary Canada, to Peru for a month long ecotourism field school.  A central component of the field school was to carry out primary research which was relevant and applied. We decided to carry out a simple quantitative study on the perceptions of English-speaking tourists of Machu Picchu.  The study explored tourist perceptions of the route taken into Machu Picchu and the site of Machu Picchu itself but the paper only focuses on the perceptions of the Machu Picchu itself.

Machu PicchuMachu PicchuThis study was framed by a general question of “what’s wrong with Machu Picchu?” Since 2004 I have managed three visits to Machu Picchu and observed important tourism guidebooks and other media characterize Machu Picchu in positive and negative ways even for those media that espouse its beauty they tend to emphasize over-crowding.  For example, the Peru Lonely Planet describes Machu Picchu as …a visit to the lost Inca city of Machu Picchu is the sweet cherry on the top of their trip…This awe inspiring ancient city… then in the same paragraph …in the high season from late May to early September the maximum limit of 2,500 people arrive daily… Despite this great tourist influx, the site manages to retain its air of grandeur and mystery…(pg. 269).  The adjacent pueblo of Aguas Caliente (which is not the actual site but part of the overall experience) is then described as “…sound beautiful? Trust us it’s not: unplanned tourism development and perpetual construction makes this one of the ugliest and most exploitative towns you’ll run across anywhere in Peru…”(pg. 265).  In 2006 the Los Angeles Times stated that: “Machu Picchu, one of the most storied archeological sites in the Americas, it has become a victim of its own astounding success and now faces threats from overcrowding, landslides, erosion, fire — and greed.” The AirGuide Airline & Travel News – Destination News September 21, 2009 ranked Machu Picchu fourth of the five world’s most overrated ancient and historical sites.

Perhaps the most studied risk to Machu Picchu is its susceptibility to landslides. The area was subject to two quick landslides in 1995 affecting the site and the switchback road leading up to the site (Roach, 2002).   In 2002, Sassa, Fukuaka & Carreno reported of the real risk of landslides in the heart of the site.  The researchers concluded that protection of the site is made complicated by the scientific, technological, social and financial considerations.  In January of 2010 severe rains in the area caused unprecedented landslides that reportedly killed five people, stranded as many as 1,500 visitors and staff and forced the site to be closed until April of that year.  It is likely that future guidebook and media depictions of Machu Picchu will highlight the threat of landslides as it relates to the typical traveler.

The influence of tourist guidebooks and travel writing cannot be under estimated. Such sources of knowledge are intended reduce uncertainty and anxiety for the traveler by providing a description of the place prior to a visit (Osti, Turner, & King, 2009).  Guidebooks can determine what places or markers are visited or not.  Guidebooks can also fundamentally shape one’s expectations of the site prior to a visit (Zillinger, 2006).  Guidebooks can influence in profound ways by blurring what is real and what is not, for example Nishimura, Waryszak & King (2006) found that tourists considered guidebook images to be ‘real’ while what was ‘actually’ seen or experienced was seen as a representation of guidebook contents.   My experience is that guidebooks can become the focus of much conversation and debate in just about any hostel or café en route.

 

Overview of Methodological Approach

The study was divided into two parts. The first was to target tourists in Cusco prior to their Machu Picchu visit to obtain their pre-visit perceptions.  Using some of the same measures the second part was to target tourists in the village of Aguas Caliente to obtain their post-trip perceptions of the Machu Picchu.   Pre-visit survey data collection was carried from May 10 to 13th, and in the public square known as the Plaza de Armas where numerous tourists congregate.  Data collection for the Post-visit sample was carried during May 17th to 19th, in a similar plaza in Aguas Caliente (Machu Picchu).   The sample for the study consisted of English-speaking, adult tourists to Machu Picchu in either, Cusco, Peru (pre-visit sample) or Aguas Caliente (post-visit sample). Pre-visit and post-visit samples were sought to explore for obvious differences in perceptions.  There was no attempt to carry out a pre and post survey of the same sample of individuals because of the operational difficulty in following a particular group throughout.  The sampling method was a systematic random sampling approach, on site, using the person-to-person intercept survey technique with a structured questionnaire.  Some may question the inclusion of two distinct and seemingly unconnected samples. The rationale for using separate pre-visit and post-visit samples rests with the overall methodological approach of the study, which is exploratory.  There is little to no published data on visitors to Machu Picchu and when little is known it is not uncommon to cast a broader net for collection of data (Jennings, 2001).  In this case I chose to pursue pre-visit and post-visit data collection iterations to ensure optimal exploration within the scope of resources available to us in our situation in a field school setting.  The intention is that this study should inform future more focussed research projects.

Aguas CalientesAguas Calientes

Questionnaire design can be described as a simple descriptive questionnaire.  The pre-trip measurement tool consisted of eleven (11) questions to fit neatly on one-page double-sided, while the post-trip measurement tool consisted of eleven (11) questions also to fit on one-page double-sided.  The brevity of the measurement tool was designed to ensure higher respondent participation and ease of administration on the part of the student field researchers.

 

Data analysis was carried out with SPSS Version 17 in two separate files: pre-visit sample and post-visit sample.  Analysis for this report consisted of frequency analysis, descriptive analysis, cross-tabulations of selected variables and basic reliability testing of the measures involved.  The study received approval from the Human Ethics Review Board at Mount Royal University.

 

Results of the Study  

Table 1 describes the general make-up of the two samples.  Overall the two samples are similar but differ on two important variables.  The pre-visit sample is younger, similar in gender make-up and self-reporting of how adventurous they are, but less likely to be working full-time, more likely to be a student and more likely to be in-between (e.g taking a year off to travel and not sure what to do when they return to their home country.  The pre-visit sample appears similar to a typical ‘backpacker’ group while the post-visit group being older and more likely to be working full time appears to be of a group-tour traveller.

 

Table 1: Description of Pre-Visit and Post-Visit Samples

Variable

Pre-Visit Sample % (N-191)

Post Visit Sample% (N-147)

Age

   

18 to 24

38

30

25 to 34

35

33

35 to 44

10

15

45 to 54

7

12

55 to 64

7

7

65 plus

3

4

Gender

   

Male

47

47

Female

53

53

Travel Group Size (mean)

2.31

2.63

Adventurous

   

Very Adventurous

27

26

Adventurous

50

52

In Between

22

20

Not Adventurous

1

2

Not at All Adventurous

0

0

Status at Home

   

Work Full Time

55

63

Student

21

17

In-Between

28

10

 

The ‘Status at Home’ question sought to understand the general status of the respondent in their home country.  The aim of the question was to make simple distinctions which may hold implications for travel.  Such as those working full time may have less time to travel but may also have more consistent financial resources, the student is may have more time but less access to consistent financial resources, and the person in-between makes reference to a cohort I have witnessed growing over the past decade which is the adult who after college or university and several years or even decades of career-related work have taken a substantial amount of time off to travel and pursue various personal goals. It is does not necessarily make reference to the age of the respondent, or whether he/she is retired.

 

Perceptions of Machu Picchu

 

Table 2 presents the results of how people in the pre-visit sample perceived of Machu Picchu before they visited the site.

 

Table 2: Perceptions of Machu Picchu by the Pre-Visit Sample

 

Rank Order

Variable  

Percent indicating Strongly Agree and Agree

Mean (based on a 5-point scale)

1

It is a beautiful place

96

1.31

2

It is important to the economy of the local people

79

1.79

3

It is important to the cultural identity of the local people

78

1.90

4

It is overrun by tourists

73

1.97

5

Machu Picchu is a spiritual place

70

2.10

6

It is a well managed attraction for tourists and locals

64

2.26

7

It is the primary reason I came to Peru

48

2.80

8

It is a place that may help me change how I see the world

30

3.38

9

It is a place that will help me change who I am

13

3.79

10

It is simply something to do while I am in the Cusco area

17

3.89

11

It is an old worn out tourist attraction

12

3.92

 

Reliability testing for the Perceptions of Machu Picchu by the pre-visit sample measure was carried out based on theoretical sub-scales.  Items 1,2,3,5,6,7,8,9 all positive statements yielded a Cronbach alpha of .626 while the three negative statements 4,10,11   yielded a Cronbach Alpha score of .219. The latter score is less than the .6 recommended level (Pallant, 2007) and should be refined in the future to yield stronger internal consistency of reliability.  This may be done within a trial-and-error process of modifying existing items and/or adding more items.  Both Tables 5 and 6 are based on a measure anchored by a five-point Likert scale whereby 1=Strongly Agree, 4=Agree, 3=Neither, 4=Disagree and 5=Strongly Disagree.

The five highest ranking perceptions of Machu Picchu by the pre-visit group (Table 2) are that ‘it is a beautiful place’ that it is ‘important to the economy of the local people’ and ‘important to the cultural identity of the local people’.  These results appear to match what we know about or can assume about the site.  The next is that ‘it is overrun by tourists’ which appears to be related to guidebook/media depictions and the fifth highest ranking perception is that ‘it is a spiritual place’.

 

Table 3: Perceptions of Machu Picchu by the Post-Visit Group

 

Rank Order

Variable  

Percent indicating Strongly Agree and Agree

Mean (based on a 5-point scale)

1

It is a beautiful place

99

1.06

2

It is important to the economy of the local people

93

1.46

3

It is important to the cultural identity of the local people

79

1.81

4

It is a well managed attraction for tourists and locals

74

1.92

5

Machu Picchu is a spiritual place

60

2.36

6

It is overrun by tourists

52

2.58

7

It is the primary reason I came to Peru

53

2.58

9

It is a place that will help me change who I am

47

2.81

8

It is a place that may help me change how I see the world

40

2.97

10

It is simply to do while I am in the Cusco area

4

4.45

11

It is an old worn out tourist attraction

7

4.27

 

Table 3 presents the results of perceptions of Machu Picchu by the post-visit sample, or those who have already visited the site.  Reliability testing for the perceptions of Machu Picchu by the post-visit sample measure was carried out based on theoretical sub-scales.  Items 1,2,3,5,6,7,8,9 all positive statements yielded a Cronbach alpha of .641 while the three negative statements 4,10,11   yielded a Cronbach Alpha score of .473. The latter score is less than the .6 recommended level and should be refined in the future as with the previous Table 2 result.

 

The three highest ranking perceptions of the post-visit sample match the previous group, that is, ‘it is a beautiful place’ first, that ‘it is important to the economy of the local people’ second and that ‘it is important to the cultural identity of the local people,’ third.  That ‘it is a well managed attraction for tourists and local alike’ ranked fourth for the post-visit group while ranking sixth for the pre-visit sample.  This may imply that a pre-visit expectation of being overrun by tourists does not match with being well managed but once experienced the way Machu Picchu is managed impresses tourists to the site.  The fifth highest ranking perception, ‘that it is a spiritual place’ is similar for both samples.  That ‘it is overrun by tourists’ ranked lower for the group that had visited Machu Picchu then the group that had not yet been to the site.

 

The comparison of means, of specific items from one to sample to the other reveals other important insights and conceptually how a visit to the site may change one’s perception of the Machu Picchu site.  Table 4 brings together previous results to facilitate a cursory visual comparison of the pre-visit and post-visit samples perception of Machu Picchu.

 

Table 4: Visual Comparison of Means of the Pre and Post Visit Samples of the Perceptions of Machu Picchu

Variable  

Pre-Visit Sample

Mean

Post Visit Sample

Mean

The Post-Visit Sample viewed each as:

It is a beautiful place

1.31

1.06

Higher ranked

It is important to the economy of the local people

1.79

1.46

Higher ranked

It is important to the cultural identity of the local people

1.90

1.81

Higher ranked

It is a well managed attraction for tourists and locals

1.97

1.92

Higher ranked

Machu Picchu is a spiritual place

2.10

2.36

Lower ranked

It is overrun by tourists

2.26

2.58

Lower ranked

It is the primary reason I came to Peru

2.80

2.58

Higher ranked

It is a place that will help me change who I am

3.38

2.81

Much higher ranked

It is a place that may help me change how I see the world

3.79

2.97

Much higher ranked

It is simply to do while I am in the Cusco area

3.89

4.45

Much lower ranked

It is an old worm out tourist attraction

3.92

4.27

Much lower ranked

 

What can be said from this simple visual examination of means is that perhaps after tourists visit the site of Machu Picchu they are more likely to view it as:  

  • A beautiful place
  • Important to the economy of the local people
  • Important to the cultural identity of the local people
  • It is a well managed attraction for locals and tourists alike

These results suggest that a visit to the Machu Picchu reinforces its beauty, and importance.

Once tourists have visited the site they are less likely to view it as:

  • As a spiritual place
  • Overrun by tourists

These results that tourists to the site are either well prepared to encounter tourists therefore it is not a concern, or that tourists who chose to visit Machu Picchu are more amenable to crowds.  It also may suggest that, for some reason, the spiritual aspect of Machu Picchu does not come across as well.

And once tourists have visited the site they are considerably more likely to view it as:

  • As a place that will change who I am
  • A place to help me change the way I see the world

And once tourists have visited the site they are considerably less likely to view it as:

  • As simply something to do while I am in Cusco
  • An old and worn out tourist attraction

Tourists at the Hitching Stone in Machu PicchuTourists at the Hitching Stone in Machu PicchuThe presence of the two items ‘As a place that will change who I am’ and ‘A place to help me change the way I see the world’  suggest that a visit to Machu Picchu may involve a transformative aspect. The results also suggest trivialization of Machu Picchu is considerably less likely once one visit the site.  Finally, having developed the measure myself I had considered how I would respond.  My responses would likely have changed over the years with increased exposure and understanding.  I believe my progression is to be from a simple perception of Machu Picchu as a beautiful place to more complex notions of it as a place of great historical and spiritual importance to its significance as a critical revenue generator for the local people.  My experience of visiting site on several occasions in the past decade have exposed me to considerable local tourist chatter of it being too crowded, old and worn out and place for ‘tourists’ and not the seasoned ‘traveler’.  I do not share those negative perceptions of Machu Picchu but nonetheless I have observed them and ironically most often from people who have not visited the site.

 

 

Conclusion

The goal of this study was to carry out an exploratory investigation of tourist perceptions of Machu Picchu.  Given that there is little published research on the subject the results of this study should offer some insight but clearly more research is needed to gain any kind of comprehensive understanding of these tourists and their relationship to the Machu Picchu.  What this brief study did reveal is that tourists to the site tend to view Machu Picchu positively despite recognizing its crowdedness and touristic orientation.

Just about everyone agrees that Machu Picchu is both beautiful and important to the economy and cultural identity of the local people.  It is also recognized that it is well managed for both tourists and locals.  That it is a spiritual place is less well acknowledged.  Yet its transformative potential (i.e. ability to change me and change the way I see the world) is more subscribed to by the post-visit sample.  Is this a function of an older population more open to challenges of their own identity and ontology or is it function of having experienced the site?  Similarly the pre-visit sample of generally younger tourists perceived Machu Picchu to be more of something to do while in Cusco and that it is an old and worn out tourist attraction then the generally older post-visit sample.  Is this a function of predictable demographic differences? Or is it that the pre-visit sample relying on guidebook/media depictions is more likely to form negative notions of Machu Picchu prior to the visit?

In conclusion I believe that what if anything is wrong with Machu Picchu is in the eye of the beholder and her or his expectations.  What is apparent from this study is that there is considerable room for more research in this area for example linking notions of authenticity and transformation with traveler motives may yield important insights.  Another area may be to examine the role of guidebooks in shaping the Machu Picchu experience and to link recreation coping research to both the Machu Picchu experience in shaping stress related responses and who visits and avoids the site.

 

 

 

References

AirGuide Airline & Travel News – Destination News September 21, 2009

Benson, S., Hellander, P., & Wlodarski, R. (2007) Peru Lonely Planet, Victoria Australia

Costa, F., & Bauer, T. (2001) Latin American Tourism: An Australian Travel Industry Perspective: In Tourism in South America ED Gui Sanata. The Haworth Hospitality Press, NY

Machu Picchu: Success Breeds Problems, Los Angeles Times Wednesday May 3, 2006, http://gosouthamerica.about.com/b/2006/05/03/machu-picchu-success-breeds-problems.htm

Nishimura, S., Waryszak, R. & King, B. (2006) Guidebook use of Japanese tourist: a qualitative study of Australia inbound travelers.  International Journal of  Tourism Research. 8 13-26 doi:10.1002/jtr.544

Osti, L.,Turner, L., & King, B. (2009) Cultural differences in travel guidebooks information search. Journal of Vacation Marketing. 15 (1) 63-79

Pallant, Julie (2007) SPSS Survival Guide Version 15. Open University Press MaGraw Hill New York

Road to ruin; Tourism in Peru. (visits to Machu Picchu cause environmental problems) from: The Economist (US)  Article date: July 21, 2001     http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1G1-78405868.html

Roach, John (2002) Machu Picchu Under Threat from Pressures of Tourism. For national Geographic News Retrieved from National Geographic News http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2002/04/0415_020415_machu.html

Sassa, Koji., Fukuaka, Hiroshi., & Carreno, Raul., (2002) Landslide Investigation in Machu Picchu World Heritage, Cusco Peru. IGCP Symposium Retrieved from http://www.n-koei.co.jp/library/pdf/forum11_006.pdf

Zillinger, M. (2006) The importance of guidebooks for the chose of tourst sites: a study of German tourists in Sweden. Scandinavian Journal of Hospitality and Tourism 6(3), 229-247 10.1080/15022250600869427

 


About the Author

Joe Pavelka is an Associate Professor in the Bachelors of Applied Ecotourism and Outdoor Leadership at Mount Royal University and the President of Planvision Consulting Ltd. (Web: Joepavelka.com )
Note: A 27-minute student-produced film was developed based on this research and it is available by contacting the author at jpavelka[at]mtroyal.ca 

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