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No, We’re Not Trampling Machu Picchu Out of Existence

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By Tyler Moss, Condé Nast Traveler

“The Gringo Killer.”

That’s what Inca Trail porters call the trail of steep stone stairs leading up to The Sun Gate, the last real obstacle before descending into the valley that holds Machu Picchu. After slowly climbing the massive steps, some as high as my waist, I was hit with a sinking feeling.

Despite the excitement I felt when booking this trip, stories of overcrowding had left me apprehensive, and here was that worry made manifest: A stunning viewpoint… Disneyland-packed with amateur photographers. I walked to the rail expecting to see Machu Picchu teeming with people—a veritable rat maze of tourists. To my surprise, however, the park felt almost empty, with small tour groups evenly dispersed throughout the ruins. This outlook was the busiest spot by far. Peering through my camera, I couldn’t help but think, Maybe Peru has a better grip on this whole overtourism problem after all.

Built in the 15th century by order of the Inca ruler Pachacutec, Machu Picchu was only populated for an estimated 80 years, at which time it was mysteriously abandoned. The ruins (which, for perspective, could fit the Roman Colosseum five times over) were found buried in foliage by American explorer Hiram Bingham in 1911, declared a Peruvian Historical Sanctuary in 1981, and a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1983. While the site previously drew modest numbers, it’s in the past decade and a half that tourism skyrocketed, in large part prompted by a 2007 poll naming Machu Picchu one of the “New Seven Wonders of the World.” Consider the following: In 1996, fewer than 400,000 people visited Machu Picchu. In 2016, the site saw 1.4 million tourists.
See the video.

© Getty Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of the mountain.

Alarmed by the stress of such foot traffic, and the lack of infrastructure to manage the swells, UNESCO threatened to place Machu Picchu on its “List of World Heritage in Danger” in 2016. There was little doubt the site was suffering from overtourism, a term Elizabeth Becker, author of Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism, describes as “a tourism that simply overwhelms a destination. It dramatically diminishes the quality of life for the people who live there. It changes the experience of the tourists who visit.”

The Peruvian government was already devising a strategy: a five-year, $43.7 million plan to “reconceptualize” the site in a manner that would help conserve the ruins and satisfy UNESCO. The plan involves the building of a visitor and orientation center, and a new exit ramp, as well improved means of controlling crowds and dispersing visitors.

In Inca times, archeologists approximate that no more than 750 people lived in Machu Picchu at once. Today, more than 5,000 visitors pass through per day.

In Inca times, archeologists approximate that no more than 750 people lived in Machu Picchu at once. Today, more than 5,000 visitors pass through per day (which, it must be noted, is more than twice the limit initially recommended by UNESCO—a prescription ultimately ignored so as not to limit the tourist dollars the attraction currently brings in, though UNESCO seems to be fine with this). Rules put into effect on July 1, 2017, are intended to mitigate the wear and tear of this volume—tempering the erosion from foot traffic, helping to keep the park clean, and preventing damage to the ruins themselves from careless tourists crawling up onto them. They accomplish this not by actually reducing the number of individuals who visit the site each year, but through better managing the flow and capping the number of visitors inside at any given time.

The new system diffuses visitors throughout the day with two entry windows: one in the morning and one in the afternoon. All who enter must do so with an accredited guide who is directed to follow one of three pre-designated paths (no wandering or backtracking allowed), and supervising guards are quick with a whistle.

Sarah Miginiac, General Manager Latin America for the tour operator G Adventures, went to Machu Picchu for the first time in 2005. She recalls being able to stray wherever she wanted, observing other tourists climbing on the polished granite walls and sacred monuments like the solar clock Intihuatana. Now, she says, the difference is tangible: “I was back in Machu Picchu in May, and I remember looking at places and saying, ‘I’ve been there.’ And now it’s all closed and protected. Which I think is a very good thing.”

While he thinks the new stipulations have been successful in maintaining and conserving the site, Raul Ccolque, a native of the region and owner of Alpaca Expeditions, thinks there are still some kinks to work out. For instance, the only bathrooms at the site lie outside the ticketed entry, and a strict no re-entry policy prohibits mid-tour bathroom breaks: “Imagine that you want to use the toilet while at Machu Picchu. You have to walk outside [the park], but you are not allowed to re-enter,” Ccolque says. “That doesn’t work for us—I think they should allow people to enter again. Sometimes people get sick [from the altitude].”

UNESCO seems pleased by the progress—a 2017 report deems the majority of previous issues plaguing Machu Picchu “resolved.” Miginiac agrees, crediting measures taken by the government to coax tourists to alternative sites of Incan ruins—such as Choquequirao outside of Cuzco and Kuelap in northern Peru—with easing the burden.

Yet completely stymying the effects of overtourism is still a work-in-progress. Historically, the sanctuary was only accessible on foot via the Inca Trail, as the Incas did not have horses or any other riding animals until the arrival of the Spanish in the 1530s. Today, the site struggles with issues of accessibility: The only way for non-Inca Trail hikers to reach Machu Picchu is via bus (or via a long, very steep hike up from the base of Machu Picchu mountain). The 5.5-mile ride from Aguas Calientes (the town at the base of the mountain) on the Carretera Hiram Bingham snakes precariously up the mountain on a narrow, one-lane road that’s prone to landslides. Other methods of access have long been explored, but competing interests (bus owners, UNESCO, locals) have made compromise difficult.

The residents of Aguas Calientes also face a lingering overtourism problem: On one hand, visitors coming to see Machu Picchu are vital to their livelihood. But on the other hand, because it’s so dense with wealthy travelers, the locals face constant crowds and rising prices at restaurants and grocery stores. Says Ccolque: “Tourism, for us, is the main economic activity in the region. The problem is we don’t have too much infrastructure [to ensure the wealth is properly distributed].”

Despite the relative successes of the Machu Picchu plan, overtourism remains a problem plaguing many UNESCO-designated World Heritage Sites. Being distinguished as such attracts tourist dollars, leading some countries to push for the title before the infrastructure is in place to manage the influx, and without thorough consideration of the impact on the local population. In a 2014 article in New Left Review, journalist Marco d’Eramo went so far as to deem the phenomenon “Unescocide.”

The problem, according to Becker, is a political one—and a one-size-fits-all approach isn’t the solution: “There are a lot of different constituencies. What looks like overcrowding to one country, to another looks like money for development. And I don’t think they’ve been able to come up with a cohesive way to protect [sites] before it gets overwhelming,” she says.

It’s premature to call Machu Picchu an overtourism success story. The access and infrastructure issues must still be addressed, and the tourist dollars flowing into the region could be dispersed in better ways to benefit the quality of life for the broader local population (beyond a few key stakeholders like the bus operator, train line owners, etc.). But in terms of the ruins themselves, the regulations have gone a long way. On my second day in the citadel, it was raining. As a guide led our small group through well-preserved rooms and grassy courtyards, past the cordoned-off Temple of the Sun, low-hanging clouds peeked over the walls, making portions of the prescribed route feel almost private. It was easy at that point to imagine the solitude ancient Incas must’ve felt up there, on top of the world—and to channel the spiritual gravitas the site still conjures.

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