Demand Fair Trade Tourism

Hiking the Inca Trail is an incredible experience. The 4-day trek in southern Peru takes you through cloud forests and high altitude grasslands on your way to one of the 7 wonders of the world: Machu Picchu.

Machu Picchu is beautiful, but there is something even more amazing on the Inca Trail. The local porters who race up-and-down the stone covered slopes carrying 4 days’ worth of gear. It’s a humbling experience to watch each wave of these athletes sprint past you every morning despite the head start you had hiking hours earlier.

With porters from Evolution Treks at Dead Woman’s Pass (13,828 ft), the highest point on the Inca Trail.

The use of porters is integral to the eco-tourism industry for a number of reasons. For example, it opens these outdoor adventures to a broader audience that may not be willing or able to lug their own tent and gear along a trail at nearly 14,000 ft in elevation. It also creates jobs that stimulate local economies in areas of the developing world where employment options are sparse. However, only the tourists have the power to demand that these are “good jobs.”

The truth is that many of these local workers are exploited and that any laws enacted to protect workers are not strong enough [1]. Porters in Peru continue to receive insufficient pay and benefits, often less than $8 USD per day. They have inadequate gear and work under poor conditions. It is not unusual for the porters to carry much more than the 20 kg (approximately 44 lbs) limit imposed by law. On my recent trek through the Inca Trail, one of the porters from another tour company told me his pack weighed nearly 70 lbs! Two tourists brave (or stupid) enough to try to carry one of the porters’ packs only made it a few hundred feet. Consider this contrast: along the Inca Trail each party of tourists gets a private camping-style tent to sleep in; the porters sleep on the uncovered ground under the tent where the tourists eat their meals, with littler shelter from the rain and cold.

Eco-tourism is a growing industry, particularly in the developing world. The issue of fair treatment of eco-tourism employees extends far beyond the cloud forests of the Peruvian Andes. There are choices we can make as consumers to change the way eco-tourism employees are treated. It’s simple — just use companies that treat their employees well.

There is an emerging movement in the eco-tourism industry towards “fair trade” tourism and equal opportunity employment. New types of companies are forming — like Evolution Treks based out of Cusco, Peru — that structure as cooperatives to ensure that all the employees own shares of the company and have a say in their working conditions. Organizations like Fair Trade Tourism are emerging to promote responsible tourism in the developing world.

Improving the working conditions of eco-tourism employees is not without a cost. A company may have to bring more gear, which requires more people to carry it. The price must either increase, or the profit of the tour company must decrease. Only the former creates an incentive for companies to act. Therefore, all of us with the privilege to travel must demand action by voting with our wallets and choosing tour companies carefully. Make sure to ask where your porters are sleeping.