by Greg Dickinson, The Telegraph, May 16, 2019
Historians, archaeologists and tourism lobbying groups have joined forces to fight against the development of a new international airport, which will fly tourists direct to Machu Picchu.
Plans for the airport were first announced in 2012 by Peru’s former president Ollanta Humala. Seven years on, the bulldozers have arrived in Chinchero – the gateway to the Sacred Valley – and are clearing the way for a new hub which will sit 3,800 metres above sea level.
As it stands, most visitors to Machu Picchu arrive at Cusco, 50 miles southeast of the site, and then either catch a train or bus to the ruins, or embark on the four-day Inca Trail. However, due to Cusco Airport’s location in a city surrounded by hills, large aircraft cannot operate here. The new airport at Chinchero will be open to larger jets on longer international routes.
Chinchero is a well-preserved Inca city, built six centuries ago as the royal estate for the Inca ruler Túpac Inca Yupanqui. It is this site, rather than Machu Picchu itself, that is the primary focus of the protests among archaeologists and historians.
A petition launched by Natalia Majluf, calling on the government to desist from the project, has received over 5,000 signatures. It reads: “The airport planned to be built in Chinchero, Cusco, endangers the conservation of one of the most important historical and archaeological sites in the world.”
“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.”
Some 30 miles northwest of Chinchero is Ollantaytambo archaeological park; some have expressed concern that planes taking off and landing at the new airport would need to pass low over the site, potentially causing structural damage to the ruins. There are also concerns that the new airport will bring noise and air pollution to this pristine part of Peru, and that the building of the airport will put a strain on the limited water sources in the region.
Over one million tourists visited Machu Picchu in 2018. The number of tickets available per day rose from 2,500 to 6,600 in 2017. This has since gone down to 5,600 per day and the Peruvian government has introduced a number of measures to curb overcrowding, including one-way circuits around the ruins; the introduction of a one ticket, one entry rule. Staggered hourly entry times were adopted earlier this year.
“The new measures will allow the large influx of visitors to become more uniform throughout the day,” said Marisol Acosta of the Peru tourist board, when announcing the plan for staggered entry in 2017. “More importantly, they will ensure that our most important sanctuary and World Heritage Site will be preserved correctly over time.”
However, the number of visitors at Machu Picchu is still double the number recommended by Unesco, which warns against the impact of overtourism at Machu Picchu. It says: “Tourism itself represents a double-edged sword by providing economic benefits but also by resulting in major cultural and ecological impacts. The strongly increasing number of visitors to the Historic Sanctuary of Machu Picchu must be matched by an adequate management regulating access.” As recently as 2007, Unesco was considering reclassifying the citadel as an ‘endangered’ World Heritage Site.
Justin Francis, CEO of Responsible Travel, has expressed concern about what the new airport could mean for Machu Picchu. “I thought I’d seen it all. When we look back at what went wrong with tourism, this will be the story that sums it all up.
“Here our world view that tourism growth is infinite rams up against the fact that every destination has a finite capacity, and more so a 15th-century Inca hilltop citadel. Machu Picchu’s limit was exceeded long ago, at already double the Unesco World Heritage Committee’s threshold.
“Adding an international airport will give Unesco no option but to remove its World Heritage Site status. A sacred place will become a sad theme park for daytrippers. Its cachet for higher spending tourists who stay longer and create more local economic benefit will be reduced. Less rather than more money will be the result.
“Nobody can begrudge the desire to alleviate poverty. Peru is stuck with one mega attraction, that is the real problem that they need to address. Their focus should be on developing and marketing their remarkable heritage into a wider offer, to spread the tourists and their money more widely, and to market more locally to reduce carbon emissions from aviation. That is where international funding and support would be welcome.”
Mark Adams, author of Turn Right at Machu Picchu: Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time, agrees that the new airport could have dire consequences for the Inca site. Speaking to Telegraph Travel, he said: “Machu Picchu’s isolation amid the Andes is both a minor inconvenience and a major part of its allure. A Chinchero airport runs the serious risk of destroying the Sacred Valley and, potentially, turning Machu Picchu itself into Inca Disney World. But maybe that’s the hope.”
Machu Picchu would not be the first world wonder to receive its own airport. Victoria Falls has one, which was expanded in 2016 to allow for up to 1.7m passengers per year. There is also a new Sphinx International Airport in Egypt, 26 miles from the ancient site.
In 2000, Chichen Itza International Airport opened in Mexico following an investment of 135 million pesos. However, many airlines that originally expressed interest in operating flights from the airport soon backed out following low pick-up from tourists, who preferred to land at Cancún and travel overland. The airport is now barely used.