How Can Tourism At Machu Picchu Be Sustainable?


Machu Picchu, rediscovered in 1911 by Hiram Bingham of Yale University, attracts tourists in their hundreds of thousands each year to its well-preserved stoneworks: baths, houses, palaces, storage rooms, temples and an awful lot of steps (around 3,000). It’s the most visited site in South America, generating a reported $40 million each year for the economy of Peru. It has a crying need for sustainable tourism, because there are many factors in whose face things must be sustained.

It is the Management Unit of Machu Picchu which must preserve the site. Comprised of representatives of various agencies, it faces pressure from major players in the tourist industry and the locals who depend upon it. With Machu Picchu having lasted for more than 500 years, action is required if it is to last another 100.

One guide remarked that the weight of the tourists will one day lead to the collapse of the city. When it was built in the 15th century, Machu Picchu had only between 700 and 800 inhabitants: it wasn’t designed for more but now sees almost 2,500 visitors every day. This concern was noted by the National University of Cuzco, whose researchers observed that all those visitors were causing large boulders to shift. As Lucio Cisneros, an engineer and geologist for the University, put it, “The unceasing footsteps of so many people produces an effect similar to a small-scale earthquake, shifting the rocks and making the constructions unstable.” Wire and other markers have been instituted to monitor the situation.

There have already been efforts to sustain Machu Picchu: prior to 2001, travellers could just turn up and hike, resulting in overcrowding and erosion, muchos garbage and unashamed exploitation of porters, whose pay was often the first thing to be cut by enterprises seeking to save money. Now, guides must always be used. Half of the 93 tour operators who sold Inca Trail packages were not permitted to continue their business there. A limit to the number of tourists admitted was set, which was the subject of much argument. The price of admission rose.

Once, Machu Picchu stank of rubbish – there was a massive dump immediately outside it which would be periodically set on fire. After dozens of meetings between government agencies, 100 tons of garbage is now taken elsewhere thrice weekly by train.

Business can help by reducing water usage, using renewable energy, paying employees adequately, buying locally, creating less rubbish, not employing child labour and bringing tourists into contact with local communities. Grease and other solids (and as the fatbergs of London show, it can become solid) can be diverted from the sewage system. Only chemicals approved by the Ministry of Health can be used. There should be no repeat of the infamous Cusqueña Beer incident, when the intihuatana – the hitching post of the sun – was damaged when a camera platform collapsed onto it during filming of a commercial. The camera operator got six years of chokey in 2005.

Peru Treks and Adventure is a tour operator that ploughs half its profits into local assistance. Its founder, Briton, Mike Weston, pointed out that sustainability can’t be the preserve of only the government and tour operators: the tourists themselves must play their part, wearing soft shoes, utilising companies that assist with sustainability, spreading the word and not leaving a mess. Much waste is made of plastic. Tourists should bring a single water bottle and purification tablets instead of purchasing four or five bottles of water each day. Hotelier, Alvaro Bedoya Nadramia, bemoaned, “What do they think happens to all that plastic out here in this isolated area once they throw it away?”

There is a realisation that commerce must not be allowed to damage Machu Picchu and this pressure can be brought to bear. There was an $8 million plan to construct a cable car which UNESCO’s International Counsel of Scientific Associations warned could trigger landslides with its constant vibration. The creator of a website that opposed the proposed cable car described it as “a major piece in the money-earning potential for the people that have the hotel and railway.” In 2002, the project was suspended when UNESCO threatened to remove the site from its World Heritage List and placed it on its list of the 100 Most-Endangered Sites in the World. In 1997, Finland traded Peru’s outstanding debt for a conservation plan, Programa Machu Picchu.

About the Author Timothy Chilman

Timothy Chilman used to work in IT. Once, in Sydney, he was turned down for a job because he was “too flamboyant” (“Someone who wears green tartan suspenders to a job interview probably isn’t going to fit in here”). Timothy then became an English teacher. University students in Bangkok complained that he was “too enthusiastic” and company students in Prague complained that he was “too theatrical.”

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