In 2005, just a few years out of university in California, Nicholas Stanziano decided to leave the manicured comforts of Santa Barbara to volunteer for a non-profit organisation in the Andes Mountains of Peru. The Urumbamba Valley just seemed like the logical place to go for a 24-year-old who had studied the socio-economics of Latin America and was struggling with a severe case of wanderlust. Eight years later, Stanziano has become a Peruvian citizen, married a Peruvian woman and co-founded SA Luxury Expeditions, a US travel agency and local tour operator based in Peru, specialising in high-quality private travel to South America.
Ethan Gelber of The Travel Word caught up with Stanziano in his offices in Lima to talk about Peru, travel in Peru and hear how SA Luxury Expeditions reviews tourism’s support for the burgeoning middle classes in urban Peru.
The Travel Word: Tell us about your first experiences and impressions of Peru.
Nicholas Stanziano: I think, like many people caught with the wanderlust bug, you either have this vision of a far-off perfect beach or, as in my case, a mountaintop city called Macchu Pichu. I’d always dreamed about it as a young man, so I decided to buy a one-way ticket to the Andes, to the Cusco region. I had connected with a small not-profit at the time that was working with porter rights and porter laws at the local level. (The porters are the local Andean folks who actually carry most of the goods, similar to the sherpas in the Himalayas.) And so I initially came partly for the experience – just to get to know the Andes and visit Macchu Pichu – but also to expose myself to some of the more local cultures and customs, as opposed to being more of a surface-level visitor.
Now, when you talk about first impressions, I think it’s important to put them against the backdrop of Peru, because Peru is a very diverse country. You have people who live in high-rise penthouse suites on the Pacific Ocean and you have people who still live as hunter-gathers with bows and arrows deep in the jungle. So my first impression was specifically in the Andean region – the Andean cultures of Peru – and it sort of clicked a chord with me that was very positive, but also very spiritual in a way, very much a spiritual rebirth. I had always found deeper meaning in nature, although when I experienced the deep-rooted traditions of Andean cultures in their worship of nature, I was able to better understand the inextricable links between nature and man.
TTW: Did this play a part in your motivations for starting SA Luxury Expeditions?
NS: Yes, but our reasons were pretty simple. My business partner, David Rottblatt, and I both had a passion for travel, we had recently finished business school with a strong tilt toward entrepreneurship, and we really believed in the positive impact that travel makes on people’s lives.
TTW: As you know, The Travel Word believes tourism is as much about the unforgettable services provided to visitors as it is about being a responsible part of a host community. Tell us about how SA Luxury Expeditions reviews its role with its partners and employees in Peru.
NS: In the past 24 months in Peru, SA Luxury Expeditions has grown to a team of 15 full-time employees over two offices. While there are many aspect of building a company in Peru that are unique compared to anywhere else in the world, people are still the key to driving growth. With this fundamental in mind, we work very hard to ensure that the growth and ambitions of the company mimic those of our people.
Remember, Peru is one of the fastest-growing economies on the continent. That means that large populations are moving from poverty into the middle class. Part of that ascension into the middle class is done through employment and specifically through formalisation in the business sector of the people that are moving up. There is a lot of informality, not just in Peru but throughout the emerging economies in South America, and I think one of the key positive aspects that helps Peru develop responsibly is through formalisation of your workers.
So in an economy like Peru’s, with its significant informal sector, we work hard to formalise all our workers, which has brought them many firsts. These include everything from quality health care (whether the national system or there is even access to high-quality private healthcare) and retirement accounts that are partly subsidised by the employer, to a living wage and a first bank account. They also allow that worker to leverage their productive energies to do things like take small loans out from the banks, to buy vehicles or to buy small apartments.
As a company, we believe that improvement in the social indicators of our people improves productivity, motivates and serves as a competitive advantage. When our people feel more secure and are healthier, they’re more motivated in what they do. We also believe that initiatives that are both good for people and good for the financial health of the company are the most sustainable in the long term.
TTW: Is your impact as direct when working with Andean employees in the Cusco region?
NS: First, I should note that our entire team in Cusco has all the same benefits and formalisation that our team has in the urban parts of Peru. Then, specifically with the porters on the Inca Trail, we work with a company called Wayki Trek (wayki means ‘friend’ in Quechua). Wayki is one of the few indigenous-owned and -managed companies operating on the Inca Trail. We believe in working as directly as possible with the folks who are actually executing the trips. In the United States you might like to think of it as ‘shop local.’ We definitely like to shop local, but there’s another nuance to that, which is to shop locally where you know financial resources are going to be recycled into the local community. There are lots of very large multinationals that have local operations on the Inca Trail, but obviously there’s a lot of financial leakage abroad when working with those companies. We really believe about working direct and making sure that that money is recycled.
TTW: In your years in Peru, how have you seen tourism change, both in terms of travellers expectations and how they react when they arrive, and, perhaps more tellingly, in terms of tourism’s impact on locals?
NS: Following the years of civil strife in the late 80s and 90s, as tourism began to return to Peru, it was mostly the domain of backpackers with basic expectations of amenities. The past eight years, though, ever since my arrival in Peru, have seen a considerable shift to it being a destination for the discerning traveller. This is a product of significant improvements in infrustructure and Machu Picchu being named a World Wonder, among other things. Yet, Peru still enjoy’s a privileged position of being able to offer a comfortable travel experience, alongside a still exotic and authentic cultural experience, maintaining that tough balance that discerning travellers are looking for.
In regards to tourism’s impact on locals, and when you weigh the pros and cons against other forms of development in Peru, I think it’s been very positive. With that said, tourism is participating in a shift from traditional Andean practices to modern living. And from the perspective of the outsider who feels strongly about the preservation of traditional cultures, this may seem a negative externality. Especially for someone like myself, whose exposure to these traditional practices made such an impact in my life, it can be very sad. Although, if you were to speak to someone that lives tucked away on a mountain in the Andes a full day by llama to the closest market, you may hear a different story about how things like cell phones or solar power are making positive impacts in their daily lives. Modernisation is a very complicated subject and is shrouded in melancholy for the past.