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The Machu Picchu complex is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Peru’s most visited tourist attraction

Fear and Anger Over Construction of International Airport For Machu Picchu

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Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley in Peru is being put under threat of ‘irreparable damage’ as work to build an international airport to cater for ever increasing numbers of tourists begins. Land has been cleared in readiness for the construction workers to move in. With over 1.5 million visitors a year already visiting, the site is suffering from deterioration and archaeologists and historians alike fear for its future conservation.

The ruined Inca citadel in the Peruvian Andes is now so popular that along with railway development, plans have been on the table since 2012 for an international airport in its vicinity. Science magazine reports that authorities say this could help to increase the number of visitors to 6 million per year. But there are great fears that it could threaten not only the integrity of Machu Picchu but also the historic landscape in this part of the Andes.

Science magazine quotes, Natalia Majluf, a Peruvian art historian at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom and former director of the Lima Museum of Art as saying, “It’s one of Peru’s most archaeological and historically complex places…You put an airport in the middle of that landscape and it’s a disaster.”

The Inca Citadel of Machu Picchu

The archaeological site was brought to the attention of the world by Hiram Young in 1911. The 15 th century city citadel was the summer residence of the Inca and was abandoned after the Spanish Conquest . The Inca ruled an empire from modern-day Columbia to Chile. There are many remarkable archaeological wonders in Peru, but according to the Guardian, “none draw nearly as many tourists as the famed citadel of Machu Picchu.”

The problem is that the site is too popular and according to the Independent, “more than 1.5 million visitors in 2017, almost double the limit recommended by UNESCO.” This is leading to great pressure on the site and the fragile local environment. According to the Cork Examiner , great hordes of tourists every year are “swarming the dilapidated ruins, eroding local infrastructure and leaving litter and waste.”

Machu Picchu, the old Inca fortress, in the Sacred Valley is already overrun with tourists

Machu Picchu, the old Inca fortress, in the Sacred Valley is already overrun with tourists. ( klublu / Adobe)

Opposition to the International Airport

Plans are in an advanced stage to build an international airport near the historic citadel in the Andes, to increase the number of tourists in Peru. The construction of an airport would mean that more people could directly fly to Chinchero near the Inca ruins, which are 7972 feet (2430 meters) above sea level. Construction has already begun work and “bulldozers are already scraping clear millions of tons of earth in Chinchero” reports the Guardian.

The announcement of a new airport was first made in 2012, and it was opposed by many and was halted after a number of disputes. News that work has started has provoked anger among the public, especially on social media. Academics and historians in particular have been bitterly opposed to the idea. The Independent quotes Natalia Majluf, from Cambridge University, as saying the project “will cause irreparable damage due to noise, traffic, and uncontrolled urbanization”. She and others are organizing a petition to stop the building of the proposed airport and it is likely that opposition will grow as construction begins.

The authorities seem to be unaware that their project could threaten Machu Picchu , the very reason why tourists come to this part of Peru. If the airport increases the number of visitors in the area it could lead to the degradation of the ruins and the local environment, this could in the longer-term undermine the tourist sector.

Concerns Over Machu Picchu

The project is going ahead despite clear evidence that the 6000 tourists who visit the site every day are causing harm to the ruins. Even in the last weeks, the Peruvian authorities decided to prohibit access to some parts of the site, including the Temple of the Sun.   France 24 has quoted a Peruvian Culture Minister spokesperson as stating that “these measures are necessary to conserve Machu Picchu, given the evidence of deterioration.”

Some 6000 tourists who visit Machu Picchu every day

Some 6000 tourists who visit Machu Picchu every day. ( saiko3p / Adobe)

Despite this, the authorities are determined to press ahead with the plan. At present, the airport in Cusco is not able to handle the volume of passengers that want to visit Machu Picchu. It is argued that the new airport is needed to meet the demand from the many international tourists who want to visit the World Heritage Site . However, according to the Daily Hive , Inca Rail, a tour operator “will begin service to Machu Picchu from San Pedro station, in Cusco’s city center.” This would help more people to visit the historic site without the need for an international airport.

A Threat to the Historic Landscape

The airport is not only going to lead to ‘over-tourism’ in Machu Picchu but could also threaten other Inca ruins such as those in Ollantaytambo Archaeological Park. The construction phase could also damage the heritage of Chinchero, which was built in the 1400s as part of the Inca’s royal estate. There are also fears that it could damage irreparably the environment of the Valley, whose slopes are still covered with terraces built by Inca farmers.

Other concerns are that the airport could destroy the local culture of indigenous communities who have lived in the area for centuries and many locals are bitterly opposed to the project. However, others have made money by selling land and believe that the project could bring more jobs and opportunities for indigenous people.

Souvenir market on street in Ollantaytambo, Peru near Machu Picchu

Souvenir market on street in Ollantaytambo, Peru near Machu Picchu. ( vitmark / Adobe)

The controversy is once again showing the quandary facing countries such as Peru, on whether to pursue the development of its tourism sector, which may pose a risk to its archaeological sites and rich heritage.

Top image: Bulldozers and diggers clearing the land in Chinchero, Peru for the construction of a new international airport near Machu Picchu. Source: Jorge De La Quintana / Fair Use

By Ed Whelan

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