At the point where the Inca Trail enters Machu Picchu, our escort reached into his chuspa, a small, woven shoulder pouch he wore under his shirt, and brought out a handful of dried coca leaves.
"When my people would reach here, we would give thanks for a safe journey to this special place.
"Like this." His face serious, he threw the coca leaves in the air.
My small group had not, in fact, walked any portion of the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. That popular 28-mile hike takes about four days. We had entered Machu Picchu where tour buses drop their passengers and had spent about two hours walking slowly to the top of the ruins.
Our escort, Ernesto Ore, works for Lima Tours and had been an attentive, informed and decidedly passionate guide for the two days we had been with him in the Sacred Valley. He is a proud descendent of the Incas and grew up speaking their Quechua language.
After we watched the coca leaves disperse in the wind, I asked him what the Quechua words for "thank you" were, thinking I would express my gratitude for his efforts in his native language.
"There are no words in Quechua for thank you," he said. "If you want to thank someone, you do it with action."
That concept captures perfectly the spirit that had motivated me and 37 others from the U.S. travel industry to go to Peru earlier this month. We traveled there with Tourism Cares, a nonprofit that seeks to give back -- to say "thank you" through action -- to the destinations, people and cultures that provide the very foundation of our industry.
Most of us who work in the travel industry realize how lucky we are that our vocation regularly provides proximity to the most inspirational aspects of humanity and nature. To travel is to immerse oneself in the highlights of human accomplishment and in the beauty of the earth itself. We are so fortunate, during our travels, to trace the advancements of civilizations and view the most dramatic aspects of our planet's terrain.
We steep ourselves in wonder and collect a paycheck for it. But make no mistake: The future of the world we experience and love to share with others is not guaranteed. We cannot simply exploit the planet and the accomplishments of others, living and past, without saying "thank you" through action.
I joined the organization's board this spring after participating in a Tourism Cares project at Valley Forge National Historical Park, where more than 100 industry volunteers helped restore areas that had been damaged by Hurricane Irene.
The group in Peru was the first of what is hoped to be many global outreach programs. Though we did spend a few hours at Machu Picchu and made short stops as we traveled through the Sacred Valley, this was not a fam trip. We spent the first full day of the three-day program with more than 100 of our Peruvian counterparts at an educational forum, where we heard about tourism trends, plans, projects and concerns in Peru.
A panel of American tour operators, moderated by U.S. Tour Operators Association CEO Terry Dale, shared American perceptions and operator experiences while selling and marketing Peru in the U.S.
The better part of the third and final day was spent fixing up a portion of the exterior of the central market of Cuzco, the city where most visitors begin their exploration of the Sacred Valley.
Tourism Cares CEO Bruce Beckham is the Tom Sawyer of the travel industry. He has managed to convince many of us that it will be really fun to pick up paintbrushes and other restoration tools and put in some physical labor for the pure satisfaction of doing it. He has organized biannual volunteer projects throughout the U.S. for the past 10 years, but last fall, with the encouragement of board members and industry consultant Robin Tauck, he began to explore exporting the efforts overseas.
Beckham and board member Donald Hawkins, a professor of tourism at George Washington University, went to Peru last September and met with an enthusiastic group of Peruvians who were not content to merely host volunteers, but who embraced the mission behind the efforts.
After the meeting, they formed Turismo Cuida, an organization of committed Peruvian industry professionals who would work, as Tourism Cares does, to encourage responsible and sustainable tourism practices and to safeguard and protect their nation's important heritage sites.
Carlos Alberto Arrarte, the energetic CEO of Lima Tours, a major inbound operator, heads Turismo Cuida and, along with PromPeru, the country's tourist board, and hoteliers, tour operators, government officials and other industry leaders, worked with Tourism Cares to put together the joint program.
It should be noted that the city market, Mercado San Pedro, where Tourism Cares and Turismo Cuida volunteers did restoration work, is not a tourist market; it's where Cuzco residents shop every day. Tourism Cares is not merely a business-to-business effort, but an outreach mission to support the entire communities in areas where our world's greatest heritage must be protected.
Although the volunteer outreach is the most visible part of Tourism Cares' work, the organization also provides grants to sites and scholarships to students.
The spirit of caring is contagious: During the visit, Beckham announced a $10,000 grant to continue the work that was started at Mercado San Pedro.
Arrarte followed up by saying that Turismo Cuida will match the grant. A total of $80,000 has been pledged by the American contingent, which has been matched by Turismo Cuida, to support additional cultural and heritage sites in Peru as well as educational programs aimed at accelerating Peru's progress in hosting visitors.
Toward the end of the educational forum in Cuzco, I was asked to summarize what had happened that day.
So much had been discussed: The Peruvians presented data, trends and plans and talked about perceived threats, community involvement, cultural attractions and archeological developments.
The Americans spoke of challenges and opportunities, and the myriad ways Peru can be presented and sold.
Each speaker shed light on a different aspect of our very, very complex industry, and we barely touched on airlift, hotel capacity and other infrastructure issues.
After briefly summarizing these broad themes, I shared my observation that the way destinations successfully deal with complexity is by working together. On that day, I had witnessed a high degree of cooperation, even among competitors, and that's a key indicator of likely progress.
The Incas built more than 28,000 miles of trails, and the modern "Inca Trail" was only one of several paths to Machu Picchu. It struck me that, similarly, there were many different ways to go about building up tourism, but the greater the degree of cooperation and shared appreciation for the destination itself, the greater the likelihood one arrives, as our guide Ernesto did, where one wants to be. And with gratitude.
If you, too, are grateful to be part of this wonderful industry, please take a moment to visit TourismCares.org to see what you can do to give back -- to say "thank you" with action.
Among the U.S. companies that made the Peru global outreach possible were Tauck, TripMate, Amadeus, Avanti Destinations, Collette Vacations, Fairmont Specialty, General Tours, Odysseys Unlimited, On Call International and Ward Insurance.
Additionally, volunteers came from AARP Travel, Adventures by Disney, AON/Berkely, Chicago's Essex Inn, George Washington University, Group Travel Leader, John Hancock Observatory, MaCher, Meridian Management, the National Tour Association, Terrapin Blue, NYC & Company, TravelStyles, USTOA and, of course, Travel Weekly.
Turismo Cuida partners that contributed included Aranwa Hotels, Resorts and Spas; Coltur; Cuzco Regional Tourist Board, Delfin; IncaRail; Libertador Hotels, Resorts and Spas; Lima Tours; Orient-Express; Sol y Luna Resort and Spa; Viajes Pacifico; PromPeru; and the University San Ignacio de Loyola.
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.