Behind only mining and fishing, tourism is the Peru’s third-largest industry and has long been one of its economic keystones. After receiving a record 3.5 million visitors in 2015, an increase of 7.5% from 2014, 300,000 tourists arrived in January 2016 alone, putting Peru on pace for another record-breaking year of tourist arrivals. The continued growth of the tourism industry is not the result solely of increasing crowds at the world-famous Machu Picchu site. Hidden in the Peruvian Amazon, the city of Iquitos is a perfect example of how increasingly diverse tourism offerings in many new destinations are creating new opportunities for inclusive growth.
The sixth-largest city in Peru, Iquitos has a long and storied past. Previously occupied by indigenous peoples for countless generations, Spanish Jesuit missionaries founded the city in the 18th century. When global demand for rubber spiked in the 19th century, the city grew in size and importance as European money arrived thanks to the surrounding rubber plantations. Its importance in the global rubber market faded in the early 20th century, though it remains an important source of timber, oil, and other natural resources. Its location in the Amazon at the far western end of the jungle isolates it from the rest of the country; Iquitos is the world’s largest city not accessible via road, which creates a unique attraction for tourists. Investors have learned how to market the Amazon and Iquitos’ unique mix of indigenous and European history to create a new tourism hub.
Amazon River cruises are an example of how new innovation in the tourism market creates outstanding opportunities. Francesco Galli Zugaro made Iquitos his “operations hub,” he told TBY, “because of its proximity to the Amazon River … and the world-class airline servicing the destination.” Zugaro identified an opportunity to bring a different kind of experience to the Amazon. “Historically, Amazon and luxury are two terms that are not associated with each other. We saw an opportunity to cater to the highest, most demanding clientele, who are relatively well-traveled, discerning travelers, and combine that with the iconic world heritage site Machu Picchu and capitalize off of that flow of tourism.”
Aldo Macchiavello, who runs Amazon cruise company Delfin, assured that there are opportunities in sectors beyond the luxury market. He told TBY, “People do not necessarily want to go to the jungle in the Amazon Basin where we operate and stay in a five-star hotel. They want to experience the rainforest and do so on a product that is integrated with that environment.” Offering a wide range of experiences is also key to capturing a growing internal tourism market. Representing another 3.5 million travelers within Peru, domestic tourism is currently concentrated primarily in the south. The creation of new travel options to Iquitos and other less visited locations in the north will allow for additional flows and increased diversification in the country’s tourism economy.
There are still challenges facing Iquitos and other lesser-known regions seeking to reach their full tourism potential. While no longer a remote jungle outpost, travel to Iquitos can still be difficult. Maria Soledad Acosta Torrelly, director of PromPeru, acknowledged this, noting that “interregional connectivity is one of our main challenges at the moment. In the south of the country we seem to be one step ahead; however, we need to secure a similar interconnection in the north.” Progress is already being made, and Copa Airlines in August 2015 announced a new Panama-Iquitos route that would increase accessibility for international travelers. Steps like these should lead to the solidification of Iquitos as a new destination for adventure-seeking travelers the world over.