Covering two-thirds of Peru, the Amazon inspires travellers with its immense biodiversity and protected natural reserves, features that secured its inclusion among the New7Wonders of Nature in 2011. Such global distinction is a catalyst for tourism, and in this regard Peru is well placed to benefit. As such, Iquitos, the capital city of the northern Loreto region and the main point of access to the Amazon River, has a key role to play.
There are a variety of tourist activities in the area, mainly revolving around river expeditions and encounters with nature. One attraction is the country’s largest natural reserve, Pacaya-Samiria, located between the Marañón and Ucayali Rivers and covering more than 2m ha. Home to thousands of flora and fauna species, including the famous pink dolphin, the reserve has been receiving an influx of tourists over the past eight years, mostly foreigners. There were 9815 visitors to the park in 2012 compared to 989 in 2005. The first half of 2013 saw 4726 visitors. Many small lodges have set up operations near the reserve to offer accommodation and exclusive tours, including birdwatching, a big niche for ecotourism.
Another attraction near Iquitos is Quistococha, a park that covers 369 ha around its namesake lagoon. With a zoo, aquarium, small beach and restaurant, visitors have more than doubled over the past eight years, accounting for a total of 232,249 tourists in 2012, mostly Peruvians; the first seven months of 2013 has already tallied 175,527 visitors. Limited resources and infrastructure have nonetheless made it a challenge to attract more tourists. The authorities are aware of the need to increase available activities. In fact, the construction of a new aquarium is being considered. Although at the time of writing the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Tourism (Ministerio de Comercio Exterior y Turismo del Perú, MINCETUR) had yet to find a contractor. Estimated investment of $1m-2m is required to construct the aquarium on a 500-sq-metre plot.
Many indigenous peoples inhabit areas surrounding the Amazon River. Communities such as the Yagua, Bora, Ocaina, Huitoto, Cocama and Maijuna have been integrated into tourist programmes that seek to establish exchanges between foreigners and natives. With the help of regional authorities and tour operators, these activities have become a large market niche in Loreto. While most communities are willing to participate, expansion must consider sensitive cultural issues and proceed with caution, working with non-governmental organisations or teaming up alongside locals with knowledge of the surroundings.
River excursions have become the main attraction in Loreto and are a dynamic way to experience the jungle. Aside from day trips to specific sites or local communities, this segment offers river cruises that last from one night up to a week. Like hotels, the cruises are classified by a quality standard of stars, ranging from three to five. On the luxury end, only four companies currently operate, according to Carlos Canales, president of Peru’s National Chamber of Tourism, who believes this is insufficient to meet growing demand. “Amazon River cruises are becoming an important market niche that needs to be further developed,” he told OBG. Of the leading companies, Aqua Expeditions has a fleet with a capacity of 12-16 suites per ship, and prices ranging from around $2500 for four nights to nearly $9000 for eight nights. “These cruises operate at high occupation levels so we need to increase capacity,” Canales added. Two new companies are expected to enter the market in 2014, the names of which had yet to be confirmed at the time of writing.
One expansion project may be in the works with global corporation Viking River Tours, which operates large-scale cruises, mainly in Europe and Asia. According to Marciano Riva Oyarce, Loreto’s regional tourism director, the company has expressed interest in adding two new ships to the Amazon River, each with a capacity to transport 100 people on excursions that would last around 15 days. With an estimated investment of PEN100m ($37.66m), the project would represent an important step forward in expanding the industry. More modest ships are also needed to meet demand, as highlighted by government studies. According to MINCETUR, a three-star cruise suitable for 70 passengers would require an investment of $2m-4m, adding diversity to overnight river expeditions.
With only one five-star hotel, fewer than 20 three-star establishments and no four-star presence, the vast majority of hospitality in Loreto revolves round small lodges and family operations, which provide more than 1300 beds. However, occupation rates are not promising. The only five-star establishment, El Dorado Plaza Hotel and Business, with 65 rooms and 95 beds, reported 2012 occupancy rates of 56.5%. This is an increase from the 2011 average rate of 46%. Both figures are higher than occupancy rates at other establishments, which for 2012 were reported at 26.88%, according to MINCETUR. Average occupancy for all establishments during the period from January to September 2013 was around 32%, displaying a steady rise over the last couple of years, with 30.5% recorded in 2012 and a figure of 27.8% in 2011. Rates have risen despite the addition of new establishments. Loreto had 410 hospitality establishments at the beginning of 2011 and by September 2013 478 were registered, though most of these are small operations.
According to Tibisay Monsalve, general manager of the Peruvian Hotel Society, these figures show that the Amazon River has not been fully developed as a tourist product. “The Amazon has a large potential, but there have been few initiatives to realise it,” she told OBG.
At the same Monsalve said that greater conservation efforts are needed to preserve nature, the main attraction. She lauded the quality and comfort at many small accommodations, but said the government is not doing everything it can to fully protect the Amazon, such as preventing waste dumping along highways. While authorities have tried to consolidate the Amazon River and Iquitos as a tourist product in line with the Strategic Regional Plan for Tourism, the pace of sustainable development improvements needs accelerating if the region aims to enhance tourism potential. Demand is already rising, with non-resident arrivals in 2012 totalling for 104,501, an increase of nearly 2000 from the previous year. However, the average stay slightly decreased from 2.22 to 2.12 nights. The increase in short visits may reflect business trips.
Plans to develop the Amazon into a tourist product are already under way. In 2012, Peru’s Export and Tourism Promotion Agency (PromPerú) placed considerable emphasis on the southern Madre de Dios region, specifically promoting areas such as Puerto Maldonado, Tambopata and Manu. Plans in 2013 include strengthening tourism in Iquitos, according to Roxana Pérez Guevara, former market research coordinator for PromPerú. “Investment in Iquitos is dominated by Peruvians but once we begin to really promote the region, we expect to see a more balanced distribution with a rise in foreign interest,” she told OBG. “We need to create a more positive perception of the investment activity taking place, which will generate more movement.” MINCETUR has begun working more intensely with Loreto regional authorities on employee training as well as to resolve issues relating to land permits, which can hold up hotel development. According to ProInversión, these initiatives will strengthen ties between local and foreign investors.
Notwithstanding inclusion as part of a national tourism advertising campaign established in 2013, Loreto’s isolation affords limited options for access, which is one of the largest obstacles for the region’s tourism industry. However, a landmark achievement was struck in 2012, when Copa Airlines inaugurated its direct flight between Panama City and Iquitos, the first regular international service in Iquitos since 1999. With two flights a week, the service will improve access, but authorities are keen on increasing the frequency of flights to other major international cities, such as Bogotá, Buenos Aires and São Paulo. Though the government tends to stay clear of subsidy policies, MINCETUR is working on a fund to encourage more airline service to Iquitos, since it is seen as an important factor for developing the region’s potential. Plans to construct a highway connecting the entire jungle region from Loreto to Madre de Dios are already being discussed. However, this project is not likely to occur any time soon since work on the coastal highway is the priority, followed by an Andean thoroughfare, which will precede road renovations in the Amazon.
Although authorities and the private sector aim to improve infrastructure, mass tourism is not likely to arrive in Loreto, as efforts to conserve nature are strong. Though tourist numbers are rising, more promotion is needed to consolidate the destination. Innovative lodging projects that incorporate the surrounding environment into their designs and adhere to sustainable practices will continue to be in demand. This includes river cruises, which are becoming a growing trend in the region. An important factor for any future investment will involve positive relations with locals, who are eager to share the richness of the Amazon with the world without altering the region’s natural habitat.