Wednesday 16 October 2019

Could a new Machu Picchu airport be the death of one of the world's great archaeological sites?

Opinion: In an age of overtourism, building a runway in the Sacred Valley is madness, says Justin Francis

Machu Picchu, Peru. Photo: Deposit Photos
Machu Picchu, Peru. Photo: Deposit Photos

Sarah Marshall

The Peruvian government has taken the decision to build a new international airport for Machu Picchu. It will allow direct flights from major cities across Latin America and the USA, straight to the doorstep of this ancient site.

"To my mind, this appalling and irresponsible decision could be a defining moment in tourism," says Justin Francis, CEO and co-founder of Responsible Travel.

"In the future, when we look back at what went wrong with the tourism industry, this will be the story that sums it all up.

"The idea that tourism growth can be infinite here dramatically collides with the hard fact that most destinations have a finite capacity, and none more so than a 15th century Inca hilltop citadel."

Machu Picchu is already receiving double the number of visitors Unesco recommends as a sustainable limit. A staggering 1.5 million visited in 2017. "I believe the decision to pile even more pressure on this destination will be a disaster that destroys one of the world's great wonders," he says.

"Unesco will have no option but to remove Machu Picchu's World Heritage Site status. A sacred place will become a sad theme park for day trippers. Its cachet for higher-spending tourists who stay longer and create genuine economic benefit for the local community will be reduced. Less - rather than more - money, will be the result.

"It's not just Machu Picchu itself which will suffer. The airport is being built in Chinchero, at the gateway to the Sacred Valley, once the heartland of the huge Inca civilisation. Bulldozers are already tearing up the landscape, and the finished development will annihilate an ancient built landscape, shaped by the Incan people with terraces and routes.

"Critics also suggest that planes flying low over nearby Ollantaytambo and its large archaeological park could cause incalculable damage to the Inca ruins there, and destroy the peace and beauty of the area."

Francis doesn't criticise local people for seeing the new development as a way out of poverty. Some have been persuaded by the promise of 2,500 construction jobs, others have sold off small pockets of farming land to the developers.

Most dramatically, the Yanacona, one of Chinchero's three indigenous communities, has sold virtually all its land to the state for about $35m, and with that transaction, "lost their heritage and any future income from it", he believes.

"The real problem is that tourism in Peru is all about the country's one mega attraction - Machu Picchu - but encouraging more people to visit it, and helping them to do that in a single day with a handy airport, threatens to kill the goose that laid the golden egg, and rob the planet of one of its most sacred and fascinating sites.

"Instead, Peru should focus on developing and marketing its remarkable heritage into a wider offer, to spread the tourists and their money more widely. It should market more locally, too, to reduce carbon emissions from aviation. And in kind, we as travellers should think about where we travel, and resist the temptation to simply build our personal brand on the back of a photo at a famous site."

Note: Justin Francis is the CEO and co-founder of Responsible Travel. The company is launching a petition to signal their concern about the new airport at Machu Picchu. Sign it at

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