Porter Welfare Relies on Local Authorities, Tour Operators, and Travelers

19 February 2020

Hiking up the steep, rocky Inca Trail, travelers stop to catch their breath, snapping photos of craggy peaks across the valley. They sip water as their guide offers context about pastoral farming and local Quechua traditions. After a few minutes of rest, the group moves on, one slow step in front of the other assisted by hiking poles and only light daypacks resting on their backs.

Every year, tens of thousands of travelers hike Peru’s classic Inca Trail, but few would successfully complete the four-day hike without support from porters. With pack animals banned from the trail, porters must carry camping gear, kitchen equipment, and food the length of the 26-mile (42-kilometer) trail. Along the way, they also set up, clean, and break down camp and cook all the meals, ensuring travelers can focus on and enjoy the physically and mentally strenuous trek.

Many Inca Trail hikers, exhausted simply from the altitude, marvel at porters’ endurance. They also show concern for their wellbeing. Porters excel in looking after travelers, but who is looking after them?

Intrepid Group launched Step Up for Porters to raise awareness of, support, and improve porters’ rights and welfare. ©️Intrepid Group

Committed to responsible practices and fair treatment, it’s a question Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) member tour operators around the world take seriously. From the famed Inca Trail to Tanzania’s Kilimanjaro, Nepal’s Himalayas, and other mountainous treks, porter welfare is a legitimate concern and one that has come under intense scrutiny. As it should; after all, health and safety is at the forefront of a successful operator-led experience — for all travelers and staff, including porters.

Porter Protections: Few Requirements, Minimal Enforcement

In most parts of the world, porters are not protected by law. Peru is the exception. In 2001, Peru’s government enacted the Inca Trail Porters Protection Law No. 27607, which is still the country’s standard. It outlines specific guidelines including gear requirements and maximum load weight, a minimum age requirement, insurance coverage, and payment conditions.

In Tanzania, there aren’t porter-related laws, but the Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project (KPAP) raises awareness, collects data, offers equipment and educational support, and outlines best practices for tour operators. With the International Mountain Explorers Connection (IMEC), a non-profit organization, KPAP provides a public list of tour operators that meet its list of expectations for proper porter welfare. Participating companies allow KPAP to examine and scrutinize every Kilimanjaro climb. Many ATTA members working in Tanzania are on this list, and they speak highly of the organization’s work for porter welfare.

There also aren’t porter welfare laws in Uganda, where Wild Planet Adventures hires male and female porters for its four-hour day treks in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Instead, the company uses protocols suggested by the Uganda Wildlife Authority regarding the number of porters to use and safety standards. In Papua New Guinea, the Kokoda Track Authority issues permits and guidelines for the 60-mile Kokoda Track, but they aren’t enforced.

In addition to holding his company, The Wander, to high porter standards, the company’s CEO, Raza Akhtar, is helping chart a responsible porter culture in Pakistan. “Adventure tourism in Pakistan is still in the early stages, and the idea of worker rights has not taken hold yet. We have started working with communities and other tour operators to introduce sustainability practices. We are also working with the local tourism board to enforce weight-carrying limits and porter benefits by law,” he said.

The bottom line is this: There is no industry standard when it comes to porter welfare. Beyond any local laws and enforcement at the government level, every company is left to make its own decisions. Some organizations, such as the Peruvian Association of Adventure Tourism and Ecotourism (APTAE), ensure their member companies comply with laws and regulations. Ben Sherman, chairperson of the World Indigenous Tourism Alliance (WINTA), said its goal is to make sure the industry has standards for the treatment of Indigenous and local people, and that those standards are being promoted and enforced.

The ATTA convened an all-volunteer industry group to define the Adventure Travel Guide Standard and requires its members to sign a value statement, but does not currently provide similar standards for porters, nor does it police its members’ policies to guarantee compliance. “Our members strive to achieve ATTA member values, and that includes maximizing the social and economic benefits to the local community in which they work and minimizing negative impacts,” said Casey Hanisko, president of the ATTA. “We are interested in participating in discussions, facilitating standards, and providing education that could improve porter welfare."

Recognizing the need for guidance in this area, some service providers stated interest in developing global standards to ensure appropriate treatment around the world in all instances where porters are used. Tour operators contracting through on-the-ground operators are especially keen for industry-wide standards and cohesiveness among advocacy groups in order to hold all companies throughout the supply chain accountable and honest for porter safety and wellbeing.

Intrepid Group recently funded research conducted by an independent third party about porter welfare that it plans to release to the industry this year. It is intended to be a positive step toward inspiring the tourism industry to take better care of porters and to provide porters around the world with better working conditions and an improved quality of life. Coincidentally, one of the recommendations from the research is the creation of a global consortium of operators and industry players to develop a global policy or minimal standard for porter welfare.

Porters in Peru must handle exertion under heavy loads at high altitude. ©️ATTA / Charley Voorhis

Going Beyond Local Requirements

There are approximately 240 authorized tour companies operating on the Inca Trail, and some of them cut corners. For example, the law states porters need to be paid for four days (the amount of time the trail normally takes to hike), but some companies offer a three-day trek and therefore only pay porters for three days of work. Porters don’t always receive the food or proper equipment mandated by law. And in Peru, there is an “informal” market of operators working off the books without a tax number.

Also, excessive weight isn’t always monitored adequately. Some companies have clients carry equipment through weight checkpoints and then reload porters beyond the maximum 20-kilogram limit once they’re on the other side. Many companies have to hire “unofficial” porters from local villages for the first couple days of the hike to spread weight out. This often occurs due to the mandated ratio of travelers-to-porters allowed on the trail, which is frequently inadequate considering the amount of equipment and food they must carry. “This problem is well-known,” said Mark Smith of Amazonas Explorer. “It happens all the time.”

These are real and legitimate problems. And they need to be addressed.

Yet, Alfredo Ferreyros, founder and president of Explorandes, ATTA advisory board member, and three-term president of APTAE who has worked on the Inca Trail since 1975, said that, in Peru in particular, there is a misconception that most porters are not being treated at or above the minimum required standards. “There are some companies that don’t treat the porters fairly and are still exploiting them in various senses, but it is not the general rule,” he said. “The fact that there are abuses, yes, but I think it is exaggerated to say that is the general situation of the porters. The general rule is that most companies work with specific communities, register their porters, and insure them over the seasons that they work.”

“We are a family business and one of the smaller Inca Trail operators, but we take pride in operating in the most ethical way. We do our work with intention and from the heart,” said Annelies Hamerlinck, executive director of Vamos Expeditions. “We work directly with (the porters) and listen to them and their needs.” Vamos Expeditions, like all of the nearly 20 ATTA member tour operators I interviewed — and like most operators on the Inca Trail, according to Ferreyros — meet the legal guidelines regarding porters. In fact, the vast majority of ATTA member companies go beyond these minimal requirements. The porters they work with around the globe receive provisions including:

  • Goggles, masks, and disposable gloves for porters in charge of garbage and waste.
  • Annual porter gatherings with live music, food, and gifts.
  • Paying for a full day of work when a porter works only half a day.
  • Booking campsites equal to those used by guests.
  • Providing half airfare back to home villages.
  • Contributions to pension plans.
  • Upgraded training, including first aid, cooking, rescue skills, and guiding, including certification in these skills so they can prove their skills if looking for a different job.
  • Rest days on porters’ religious holidays built into itineraries.
  • Family gift baskets with toys and school supplies for kids.
  • A free place to sleep the night before and after a trek.
  • Monthly social activities for families.
The pay rate is top of mind for many tour operators, and some pay more than 30% the minimum wage for their regular porters. Additionally, the chief porter and cooks often receive higher wages and/or additional days of payment for prepping equipment and gear prior to trip departures.

Additionally, there is concern about whether porters receive the promised rate of pay, especially when third-party vendors are used. To address this, many companies deposit payment directly into porters’ bank accounts, often on a trek’s first day so payment is available as soon as the trip is over. Tipping porters at the conclusion of a trip is the one time where clients clearly see the exchange of money. A standard practice is for companies to hold tipping ceremonies where all tip money is given to the lead guide to divide among staff. KPAP recommends travelers should note the names of all porters on the first day of the trek and give each porter an individual tip envelope with his name on it on the final day.

Intrepid Group, in particular, has put financial resources behind porter welfare issues. In addition to publicly publishing its porter policy (something about a quarter of the companies interviewed do), the company launched Step Up for Porters in 2019 to raise awareness of, support, and improve porters’ rights and welfare. The $37,845 AUD raised by the campaign was distributed evenly among three organizations: KPAP, to improve the working conditions and treatment of Kilimanjaro’s porters; the Kathmandu Environmental Education Project (KEEP) in Nepal for educational, material, and community support for porters; and the Tourism Academy for Porters.

This last noted project is a joint initiative between The Intrepid Foundation (Intrepid’s non-profit arm) and Awamaki, an organization that supports and empowers women in Peru’s Sacred Valley. Born out of Intrepid Group’s research findings on how to better support porters, the Tourism Academy will train men and women from any company to become porters, cooks, and trek guides, helping them to advance their careers in the tourism industry. “Based on our research findings, most want to have the opportunity to advance their careers and support themselves and their families,” said Amy Bolger, interim general manager of The Intrepid Foundation. “In general, in Nepal porters want careers as guides and in Tanzania they want their own businesses, while the Peruvians report a mixture of both.” The Intrepid Foundation will launch the Tourism Academy in 2020 and hopes to guide four porters through the program each year.

Supporting Local Communities

Tourism plays an important economic role in small communities across the globe, and that’s particularly true when companies need porters. Respecting porters and supporting their communities is essential for the ongoing wellbeing of tourism in these areas.

Raza Akhtar, CEO of The Wander, is interested in establishing porter standards in Pakistan. © Raza Akhtar

In many cases, working as a porter is a far more lucrative job than agriculture or other trades common in these communities. For example, all of Wild Planet Adventures’ porters live in local villages in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, where they primarily work as subsistence farmers. Porters are generally paid $100 USD per day plus tips, which is more than they may make for an entire month of farming. The company distributes this income evenly by limiting portering to a maximum of two days per month. This also provides incentive for everyone to protect the gorillas, which occasionally forage the crops and whose population has grown from 290 to 880 individuals over the 16 years the habituation program has been in place. “The way the porters are treated is critical to us because without benefiting economically, there’s no way to adequately protect the gorillas,” said Josh Cohen, the company’s director. “This would not be the case if the porters didn’t benefit economically and weren’t enthusiastic and proud of their individual contribution.”

But, beyond the economic incentive to responsibly care for porters, many local tour operators know or are a part of the communities from which they hire porters. Porters are rarely random people who walk in off the street but rather a part of a local cultural and historical legacy. “It’s not anonymous. We work with full communities,” Ferreyros said. A group of porters originates from a single community, a system under which all APTAE companies work. “We all know them. We know their families,” he said. For example, Vamos Expeditions, an APTAE member, has helped support community needs by building a preschool and a cafeteria where more than 100 children daily receive nutritious meals. “These projects were born with talking,” Hamerlinck said. “Like everywhere, most porters work to be able to give their children a better future.”

Given the complex reality of porter welfare, who is responsible for ensuring they — and by extension, their families and communities — are cared for? The solution seems to sit with three parties: local authorities, travelers, and service providers.

Addressing Challenges at the Government Level

“The way WINTA looks at things and what we strive for is that the country organizations that license these tour operators should be the institutions or agencies that really look after enforcement,” Sherman said. “It’s their country. It’s their territory. It’s their people who are perhaps being abused.” He noted that individual countries signed on to uphold the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. “The way the system should work is that the permitting process should have its own standards for Indigenous and human rights enforcement,” he said. Unfortunately, many countries have failed those working as porters.

Though ATTA member companies work at or above the required standards for porters, companies frequently cite the need for more and better support from local governing bodies. “Institutions that regulate the Inca Trail do not provide the right facilities to porters and travelers. For example, campsites are not big enough,” said Angel Grandez, operations manager for Condor Travel. “The minister of culture, environmental minister, and minister of tourism need to start working together to invest in infrastructure according to their laws for porters’ and travelers’ necessities.”

G Adventures has been working with Peruvian officials to improve infrastructure such as sleeping refuges for porters and dining areas for porters and travelers. “We participated in various inspections on the Inca Trail with local authorities to determine the best places for implementation,” said Sarah Miginiac, general manager of Latin America. “Improved campsite infrastructure will help address challenges around weight.” Smith agreed changes need to be made to better — and legally — distribute weight across more people, especially early in a trek: “This creates a bit of a black market at the start, which I think could easily be solved if they allowed a higher ratio of porters to tourists.”

In Peru, the porter law is almost 20 years old, and while many companies have increased wages over the years to match inflation, the law has not kept pace. “We’re trying to negotiate a new version of the law with them including letting porters give their opinions about what should be changed,” Ferreyros said, but this process is currently stalled in the government.

By and large, porter protection laws are largely non-existent, inadequate, or poorly enforced. Unfortunately, there are some service providers who use this to their advantage. For the vast majority that genuinely care about porter welfare, however, this is an opportunity to support and work with local advocacy groups and associations to promote change that prioritizes porter health and safety.

Travelers Offer Checks and Balances, But Education is Necessary

Many operators note that travelers serve as a layer of checks and balances. Tour operators can — and should — inquire about porter treatment in post-trip evaluations. Any legitimate concerns should be addressed with on-the-ground suppliers. “There is a general level of empathy among travelers,” said Jeff Bonaldi, CEO of The Explorer’s Passage. “A lot of times they feel bad for the porters. They appreciate how hard they work and they always end up tipping more.” This mindset surfaces two aspects of porter welfare and perception that need to be considered.

The first is the lure of “budget” travel. Many travelers want affordable experiences, and the trickle-down effect can be lower porter wages and inferior working conditions. “There’s a real cost to everything, and if you’re not paying, someone else is,” Smith said, referring to the fact that some companies are willing to skimp on porter wages and benefits in order to offer inexpensive travel packages. For ATTA member companies, offering quality services and experiences for both travelers and porters is far more important than selling cheap trips. “While the benefits (founder of Indigenous Kokoda Adventures, Jesse Leta) is providing for our guides and porters add to the cost of our treks, we truly believe that once people really understand what their money is paying for, they will be more than happy to pay the tour fees,” said Deb Campagnaro, North American representative (Canada) for the company.

There’s no doubt the work porters do is difficult, and they deserve all the wages, benefits, and support they receive. Yet travelers may be unaware of local working conditions, cultural sensitivities, and personal dynamics at play among porters. “It’s easy to feel sorry for porters,” Smith said. “When you look at the amount they’re paid, you might think ‘wow, that’s not a lot of money in Western terms for the work they’re doing,’ but a lot of people don’t look at the bigger picture and realize that, being a porter, you can actually make more than a teacher and many days you’re doing less work.” Ferreyros pointed out porters are used to carrying weight from working in the fields and at such a high elevation. What takes clients six to eight hours a day to walk, porters can easily do in three or four hours.

One provision in Peru requiring close-toed shoes and trekking boots required a mindshift for porters because sandals or flip-flops are the standard and preferred footwear for some porters. “During lower-altitude treks where the weather is warm, the porters do prefer wearing such footwear,” said Caroline Mongrain of World Expeditions.

Tipping, in particular, should be approached with cultural thoughtfulness. “To pay too much in wages and to tip too much is almost as harmful as paying too little and tipping too little, so that has to be carefully watched,” Sherman said, adding that part of the reason payment is an issue is because porters are being abused in other areas, such as not receiving adequate food and carrying too much equipment. Nonetheless, tour operators need to educate travelers on culturally appropriate tipping practices. “The local tour operators must manage the tipping ceremonies in a country to make sure undertipping or overtipping does not occur,” Sherman said.

Because travelers approach trekking expeditions with a lens that mirrors their personal reality, it is important for tour operators to be transparent about porter policies. “The race to the bottom happens because there are consumers out there wanting to purchase something for less than its true value,” Smith said, “and they are willing to ignore everything that happens along the way to allow them to get that unrealistically low price.” Perhaps this is true for some travelers, but as recent research indicates, many people want to be responsible travelers, which is good news for increasing awareness about porter welfare.

Tour operators must be proactive in educating travelers about the connection between low-cost trips and porter welfare, including transparency about the real costs associated with these treks, throughout all stages of the customer journey. “Travelers must be educated about the issues they will encounter in dealing with local people. They must be made aware that they cannot contribute to the overloading of porters,” Sherman said. Additionally, tour operators should build in time on the trek itself to talk about local customs — and encourage porters to interact with clients — so travelers get to know porters as people with a history and culture in order to avoid misunderstandings about porters’ day-to-day lives, experiences, and traditions. Further, service providers need to be more direct about the implications and expectations of client-imposed weight on porters, especially on the Inca Trail, where the traveler-to-porter ratio can lead to abusive practices.

Directing travelers toward trusted third-party resources like KPAP’s tipping recommendations helps travelers do their part in upholding quality porter welfare standards in a culturally appropriate manner.

Competition: An Opportunity for Collaboration

Conversations with tour guides revealed one key message when it comes to porter welfare: They care. They honestly do. Porter services allow their businesses to survive and thrive; without porters, travelers wouldn’t be able to complete many of the world’s mountainous treks. But beyond that, porters are people too, and service providers connect with them on a personal level. Everyone has basic, human needs of safety, health, and physical and financial security.

Yet, despite government regulations, porter protection groups and initiatives, and individual company standards, there still seems to be a disconnection between how tour operators are perceived to treat porters and how they are actually treated. How is this disconnection happening?

Even as my research revealed the consideration and care companies put into porter welfare, I also discovered something interesting in my interviews: Nearly every tour operator noted that “other companies” take advantage of porters by skirting the rules, skimming their wages, and treating them poorly. Competition is a natural part of doing business, but when it comes to the welfare of fellow human beings, this is one time when collaboration has the opportunity to outweigh competition.

“It is important for companies who care about these issues to work together to make a change and stop fighting amongst ourselves,” said Raul Ccolque, founder and owner of Alpaca Expeditions. “There are so many things we agree on, but instead of working together to help our porters, companies try to fight alone so they get the credit. It is not about that.

“The porters, guides, and chefs hired for Alpaca Expeditions become like family to us,” he said. “We want them to have opportunities to have a good life, raise their families, and thrive.”

Ccolque is certainly not alone; his sentiment was echoed time and time again as I spoke to tour operators from across the world. As Ferreyros noted, there will always be companies that cut corners for selfish reasons, but by and large, most tour operators genuinely agree that porter welfare is important.

Once again, as porter welfare hits the spotlight, this is an opportunity for service providers to come together and support each other’s efforts regarding porter rights. All of these concerned companies can help each other by collectively combining their voices, educating their clients, and supporting organizations that empower porters. Perhaps it is time to develop minimum standards where they don’t exist and ensure every provider does better than what these standards require when they aren’t enough. Or, this may be the perfect time for establishing universal porter standards. “It is clear that standards, or at minimum global guidelines, should be created, and we know our members would like to collaborate,” Hanisko said. “The next step is for an organization to step forward that can support collaboration and facilitate productive conversations. If the ATTA is needed to be the convener, then we'll step into that position." Throughout this process — whatever it may entail — it is imperative for service providers to hold each other accountable without holding anyone back.

“I wouldn’t be able to sleep well if the people that work for me weren’t taken care of well. I believe that if you take good care of the people that work for you they will take good care of your clients,” Hamerlinck said.

And at the end of the day, improving the lives of all porters working for all companies isn’t just good for business. It’s the right thing to do.