Threat to Machu Picchu: Too Many Tourists
By Abraham Lama*
The Peruvian government is finalizing a plan to protect the legendary Inca city of Machu Picchu. But the tourism industry opposes cutting the number of visitors to the Andean mountaintop ruins.
LIMA - The Peruvian government has a new conservation plan in the works for its most important archeological attraction: the Inca city of Machu Picchu, under threat from the excessive flow of tourists through its ruins. But local tourism operators oppose any effort to reduce the number of visits to the site.
Built at the end of the 14th century, Machu Picchu is the most extraordinary construction of the Inca Empire, which extended across the territory that today is Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Chile and part of Argentina.
During high season, when there is little rainfall, every day some
2,500 tourists enter the city that was uncovered after centuries
in oblivion by U.S. explorer Hiram Bingham in 1911.
Most visitors take the train to reach Machu Picchu, situated at the top of a mountain in the southern Peruvian department of Cusco. But some 400 people arrive each day after making a two-day trek along the ''Inca roads'', crossing landscapes of incredible beauty and accompanied by 'porteadores' (peasants who carry the tourists' gear) -- on average almost two porteadores per tourist.
The impact of tourists and the landslides on the mountainsides have been pointed out by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) as grave threats to the site, which holds ''heritage of humanity'' status.
The unregulated passage of thousands of tourists has left obvious signs of erosion in the archeological zone, which extends over 31,000 hectares.
Their movements along the Inca roads mean pollution and a threat to the region's rich biodiversity, including an estimated 350 varieties of orchids and a wide range of endangered animals, such as the spectacled bear (Tremarctos ornatus).
UNESCO pressed the Peruvian authorities in 2002 to draw up a plan to regulate Machu Picchu visits and manage landslides in the area.
In response, the administration of President Alejandro Toledo, through the National Cultural Institute (INC) and the Natural Resources Institute (INRENA), prepared a master plan for the preservation of the Machu Picchu Historic Sanctuary, which soon will be presented to UNESCO for consideration.
The plan calls for coordinating actions and budgets for the area through 2006, and from 2006 to 2010 investments of 132.5 million dollars in projects that include satellite monitoring of landslides and prevention efforts to maintain intact the Inca city and roads.
The proposal's guidelines were presented in December to representatives of municipalities, of environmental, archeological, hotel, transportation, tourism industry groups, and even representatives of the Porteadores Association.
''It's evident that the sectors linked to the tourism industry don't want to hear even one word about reducing the volume of visitors. We couldn't reach a conclusion in that chaotic assembly, which was attended by 280 people representing diverse interests, many of them contradictory,'' Marco Pastor, engineer and coordinator of INRENA's protected areas division, told Tierramérica.
As such, Aguas Calientes, the town which emerged from the railway station where tourists arrive to visit Machu Picchu, is getting ready to fight any attempt to reduce tourist inflow.
María Elena Córdova, INC management director, said the government's master plan is not intended to reduce the current maximum average of tourists, but does aim to regulate the flow of visitors in order to at least mitigate the negative impacts to the site.
Public hearings on the project are slated for May 11-12, with the participation of representatives from civil society, the regional government, municipalities, the local peasant communities, professionals and tourism operators.
''Everyone must be heard, and although we know it will be difficult to satisfy everybody, we must encourage the greatest participation possible for approving the master plan,'' Jorge Pacheco, head of the Machu Picchu management unit, told Tierramérica.
An increase in fees for access to the area; the regulation of the number of tourists to, among other things, improve management of the waste they leave behind; as well as the promotion of other Inca sites in Peru are some of the proposals under consideration.
INC director in Cusco, David Ugarte Vega Centeno, suggested increasing the admission fees for Machu Picchu by 50 percent, ''to generate greater revenues and partially limit the inflow of tourists.''
Luis Antonio Mendoza and Walter Valderrama, both members of the Peruvian Association of Adventure and Ecological Tourism, think the move to reduce the flow of visitors to protect Machu Picchu is inevitable, and they recommend considering regulation mechanisms similar to those used for tourist destinations in the Himalayan nation of Nepal.
''On the Inca roads now there is a procession of people who, without intending to or without caring, are hurting the ecosystem as they go,'' Mendoza said in a Tierramérica interview.
''In Nepal, the visitors have to agree to an inventory of everything they carry in to the mountains, and make a security deposit to cover the high fines if they leave behind containers, plastics or anything else in the area they visit,'' he said.
Valderrama suggested that to alleviate pressure on the route to Machu Picchu, tourism officials could promote other Inca routes -- some longer and more complex -- ''and therefore more challenging, which is what people seek in adventure tourism.''
* Abraham Lama is a Tierramérica contributor.