Anyone who has ever paged through a National Geographic magazine, or flipped to the Travel Channel has undoubtedly seen mind-boggling images of Machu Picchu. In the images, ancient ruins pepper the land, mountains kiss the clouds, and a beaming tourist throws her arms in celebration of completing the trek. This is America’s Peru.
For many Americans, and much of the Western world, Peru is a life-sized cultural playground, an exotic culture that exists for our consumption. Indeed, we are a nation of consumers, which in itself is not anything groundbreaking, or inherently troubling. Consumerism is stitched into the fabric of who we are as a free, capitalist and individualistic country, and it has helped us achieve economic prosperity, and at the very least bolster our image as a free nation. Our culture of consumerism becomes an issue is when it is an agent for deteriorating the dignity and cultures of developing nations. In the case of Machu Picchu this means leveraging ancient narratives of the “sacred”, “ancient”, and “mysterious” peoples that inhabited the area thousands of years ago, while neglecting the needs of current indigenous populations.
When ethnicity is commodified, indigenous cultures are expected to remain stagnant, to become museums of the exotic for anthropologists and tourists to marvel at and dissect. This is damaging because it reduces indigenous and native peoples to whatever the western, consumerist world wants them to be. By projecting a one-dimensional image of historical Peru the realities of life in the country and the needs of its people are shrouded in a glossy, picturesque, reconstructed pseudo-reality.
Indeed, Peru is just one country. It is, however, representative of a wider, more damning trend of cultural commodification that prevails in other developing nations. This is not to depreciate the value in economic improvement that accompanies a booming tourism industry, but rather to shed light on the reality of an economy bolstered in part by tourism. Yes, commodifying the exotic reaps revenue, but it also only benefits the portion of the population that is willing or forced to leverage their culture for cash or those able to afford prices inflated for tourists.
Ultimately, there is a global responsibility to consider the people behind the ruins, the ones that call these ancient, historical places home. Touring a country with deliberation, awareness, and compassion for its modern citizens can be the difference between fostering a country’s prosperity or its depreciation.