Machu Picchu is on almost every traveler’s bucket list, but its popularity might end up being its downfall.
In 2017, the stunning ancient Inca UNESCO Heritage site — which in 2007 was voted one of the “New Seven Wonders of the World” — saw 1.5 million visitors, almost twice as many as recommended by UNESCO. The uptick in visitors has strained the landmark’s resources and, as a result, led to hiring additional guards, setting strict time limits for visitors and imposing other harm-reducing efforts.
But now, in what seems a direct contradiction to its effort to curb visitor numbers, the Peruvian government is actively courting more tourists. The Guardian reports that ground is being cleared for a new and controversial multibillion-dollar airport in the small, well-preserved Incan town of Chinchero. When complete in 2023, the airport would allow direct flights from major cities across the US and Latin America. Construction companies from South Korea and Canada are already lining up to bid for the project.
It would make getting to Machu Picchu less of a trek. Currently, visitors making the pilgrimage there fly from the Peruvian capital of Lima to the single-runway airport in Cusco, the biggest city in the region. They then must either embark on a multi-day hike or take a slow train that meanders 3½ hours through the Sacred Valley — the scenic heart of the Inca Empire in the Andean highlands — to Aguas Calientes, a town just a few miles away from the site. It can take up to an hour just to get from congested central Cusco to the train station, with tickets for the three operating rail companies selling out far in advance.
Located just 20 minutes from the Sacred Valley, the new airport would get tourists to their money shots much quicker, but it would also — somewhat ironically — destroy part of what it is they’ve come to visit. The proposal has sparked outrage and disbelief from archaeologists, historians and locals, who are petitioning Peruvian president Martín Vizcarra to reconsider the plan or relocate the airport from Chinchero.
“This is a built landscape; there are terraces and routes which were designed by the Incas,” Natalia Najiluf, a Peruvian art historian at Cambridge University who organized the petition, tells the Guardian. “Putting an airport here would destroy it.”
More than 87,00 people have signed the Change.org petition, which notes, “An airport in the surroundings of the Sacred Valley will affect the integrity of a complex Inca landscape and will cause irreparable damage due to noise, traffic and uncontrolled urbanization.”
Construction jobs and the expectation of a tourism windfall has had benefits for some, with new houses and hotels being thrown up in Chinchero, but critics say they worry that low-flying planes could potentially cause damage to the Inca ruins in the archaeological park in nearby Ollantayambo. Others are concerned that construction would affect the water supply.
And then there’s the human threat to Machu Picchu itself. In 2017, Nelson Huaman Quispe, a guide with Machu Picchu Andes Tours, explained to the Chicago Tribune, “Many tourists do things they shouldn’t do.” He added, “For example, some people climb the structures. Some take the stones. Some mark up the floor, do things they shouldn’t. … It’s chaos.”