A few years ago, after visiting me in Lima, my parents went off on their own to Cusco, armed with (what I thought was) a very thorough lecture about safety. Later, while recounting their trip, they told me about how they had traveled to the Sacred Valley. They had hailed a cab in Cusco, and the driver took them to a gas station and old to get into another taxi, where they were joined by another man in the passenger seat.
They arrived to Ollantaytambo just fine, but I was cringing the whole time they told me the story. As someone who had spent a fair amount of time in Peru, I knew that countless assaults, robberies and kidnappings began under circumstances like those they had described. I was kicking myself for not having warned them.
I had mostly forgotten about the incident until the U.S. Embassy issued a kidnapping warning for American citizens in Cusco last week. This warning inspired a kind of national indignation, running from President Humala and countless other government officials all the way down to Facebook commenters, directed at the Embassy. The Embassy, everyone seemingly argued, had overstepped its bounds and was unreasonably damaging Peru’s tourism industry (there are exceptions, of course; Carlos Basombrío and Mirko Lauer both wrote very reasonably about the subject).
There was much less indignation about a different incident that happened the same day the warning was issued. Two young Finnish women visited the archaeological sites near Trujillo with two local guys they had met during the trip. While climbing a desolate hillside, they were attacked by masked gunmen, and one of the women was raped. Similarly, I heard much less indignation about the trauma suffered by three American tourists near Cusco, who, after refusing to show ID to the leaders of a village where they were camping, were beaten to a pulp by the villagers.
And yet those incidents and others like them are vastly more damaging to Peru’s image as a tourist destination than the Embassy’s warning is. While the warning was lightly reported outside of Peru, the assault on the tourists in Cusco was a very different story. NBC’s The Today Show beamed a report about the attack into millions of homes, showing the gruesome injuries suffered by the Americans. I have no doubt that the story of the tourists assaulted in Trujillo will be widely reported in Finland.
That’s what makes the usual reaction to the Embassy’s warning so short-sighted. The warning might cause a slight dip in the number of visits to Cusco, but that’s nothing compared to the catastrophe that would hit Peru’s tourism industry if visitors to Machu Picchu started to be kidnapped.
What the American tourists in Cusco and the Finnish tourists in Trujillo (and my parents, for that matter) had in common was that they were acting as they would at home. They came from places where you don’t have to show your IDs to strangers, you can hike around tourist attractions in a group, and you trust that a taxi driver is not going to kidnap you. Many travelers, perhaps even most, would act just as they did.
What the Embassy warning will do, I think, is to make travelers a little more thoughtful, a little more wary, and a little less naive when they visit. That’s a good thing. All of us who love Peru should be glad that the Embassy is doing its part to inform and protect the American citizens who come here. It’s far better to have well-informed, safety-conscious visitors than kidnapping victims.