By Fernando Gimeno
Cuzco, Peru, Nov 5 (efe-epa).- The coronavirus pandemic has exacted a heavy toll on Cuzco, the gateway to the Inca citadel of Machu Picchu and Peru’s tourism capital, where deserted streets, empty restaurants and closed stores are a testament to Covid-19’s devastating economic impact.
But a light is now visible at the end of a dark tunnel in that southern highland city, which endured one of the country’s longest lockdowns and now is trying to adapt and bring back international tourism under strict biosafety protocols.
Prior to the pandemic, Cuzco’s historic center was a hotbed of international tourists who wandered its narrow, cobble-stoned streets lined with Inca walls and colonial homes featuring a mixture of pre-Columbian and Spanish styles.
But a strange calm now reigns in Plaza de Armas, Cuzco’s main square, where the statue of 15th-century Inca ruler Pachacuti looks up toward the Fortress of Sacsayhuaman, an archaeological park located at an altitude of 3,555 meters (11,663 feet) above sea level.
A small number of tourists have started returning to Cuzco, most of them Peruvians attracted by the low cost of domestic flights and free admission to Machu Picchu, which was reopened to tourists at reduced capacity on Sunday.
Although demand is still low, operators providing tours of the city and the surrounding region arrive at dawn at Plaza de Armas in hopes of attracting customers.
“We see the square empty and we miss not seeing foreign tourists. At least now we’re starting to get some domestic tourists,” Lisdi Arenas, who works for the Machupicchu Extremo agency, told Efe.
“It’s hard for us not seeing them and a little sad not to share with them. It’s a shame because we’re from here, prior to devoting ourselves to this. We’ve always seen tourists,” she said.
Foreign tourism is responsible for transforming Cuzco’s historic center into a cosmopolitan neighborhood, a place where scores of languages are heard on the streets and nightlife lasts until the wee hours of the morning.
“They can come and learn a bit more about our history, with total assurance that they’ll be well received and taken care of,” said Arenas, who wore two face masks for additional protection while speaking to Efe.
Alternate routes are being used for the tours because several regional tourist spots – such as the famed Vinicunca (Rainbow Mountain) – are closed to visitors for the time being.
Cuzco has been making preparations in recent weeks to receive tourists under “new normal” conditions, including disinfection protocols and capacity restrictions at restaurants and tourist sites to maintain social distancing.
It got a boost when it became the first Peruvian city to receive the “Safe Travels” seal from the World Travel & Tourism Council, a certification of the Andean nation’s adherence to Covid-19 protocols.
“The commitment of (tour operators) and the population is very important. That’s the only way we’ll be able to give visitors the confidence to arrive and get to know this beautiful city’s innumerable tourist attractions,” Foreign Trade and Tourism Minister Rocio Barrios said last month in celebrating the awarding of that global safety and hygiene stamp at a ceremony outside Qoricancha, Cuzco’s main Inca temple.
That same seal also has been awarded to Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley of the Incas, the two main tourist attractions for visitors arriving in Cuzco.
Peru reopened its borders for international flights in October, and regular routes from practically all countries in the Americas have gradually resumed. Resumption of regular air travel links with Europe, for which no date has yet been set, is presumably the next step.
The Andean nation’s Covid-19 protocols for international tourists include a mandatory negative PCR test result dated no more than 72 hours prior to the flight and a sworn statement from the visitor indicating an absence of coronavirus symptoms.
Peru has been one of the countries hardest hit by the pandemic with 900,000 confirmed cases, more than 34,000 deaths attributed to Covid-19 and a case fatality rate of 105 per 100,000 inhabitants that is one of the world’s highest. EFE-EPA