Responsible tourism in Machu Picchu

The popularity of Machu Picchu as a destination for cultural and adventure tourism has been a huge success story for the Andean people. It has comfortably been the most-visited attraction in Peru for years now, was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983, and trekking the Inca Trail to reach it is a staple of many a bucket list. Mark Rice is a historian, and author of Making Machu Picchu, which explores 20th-century tourism in Peru: “The prestige of Machu Picchu and its importance to the Peruvian tourism industry has allowed Andean people to say to Lima ‘you should be celebrating us and our culture’. And I think the Peruvian state is now happy to celebrate Andean folklore and Incan history - although it still tends to sidestep the contemporary. They’re less interested in talking about land rights, for example.”

But Machu Picchu is also one of the world’s most high profile victims of overtourism – in 2008 the World Monuments Fund placed the ancient Incan citadel on its Watch List of 100 Most Endangered Sites, due to the environmental degradation resulting from unsustainable visitor numbers. Not long afterwards, the Peruvian government and UNESCO agreed that numbers would be limited to 2,500 per day going forwards.

And of those 2,500, a not insignificant number arrive by the classic route, trekking the Inca Trail. They are accompanied by a veritable army of porters, the Peruvian equivalent of sherpas on Everest, scaling the heights with heavy packs strapped to their backs, at speeds to make you gasp.

Responsible tourism operators are working together to make sure that these hard-working and always-cheerful porters are treated with the respect they deserve, which includes a decent wage and ensuring they are not carrying too much. One of our operators, Exodus Travels, having realised that most of their porters had never even seen inside Machu Picchu, has so far arranged for 100 of them to take a guided tour in their own language to see what all the fuss is about.

It’s also worth pointing out that the tourism industry around Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail has undergone rapid growth, and often employs indigenous people at low wages. So while porters are some of the most visible, theirs are not the only rights that need to be considered.

Machu Picchu and overtourism

As recently as the early 1980s visitors to Machu Picchu numbered in the low 100,000s, but by 2013 that had swelled to 1.2 million, a 700 percent increase. Much of that was down to increased awareness, with Machu Picchu recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and then one of the ‘New Seven Wonders of the World’. Its proximity to a pre-existing railway line made it more accessible than most Peruvian Incan ruins too, and shrewd marketing by local Andean leaders ensured that Machu Picchu quickly became Peru’s most recognisable symbol.
Environmental degradation, around the ruins themselves and on the iconic Inca Trail, a four-day trek culminating at Aguas Calientes, the gateway to Machu Picchu, is just one consequence of overtourism. Soil and vegetation erosion on the trail contributes to mud slides like those of 2010 and 2017, and there have been allegations of tourists damaging stonework. As well as this, communities such as Aguas Calientes that see such a huge influx of visitors can become dependent on the tourism industry, a situation that may prove unsustainable should Machu Picchu at some point need to be closed off for any prolonged period of time in future.

Ch-ch-ch-changes

In an effort to combat overtourism, visitors to Machu Picchu now have to enter during one of two time slots, between 6am and noon, or noon and 5.30pm. In theory they have a maximum of four hours in the complex (six if hiking up either Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu mountains) but in reality many people overstay.

Visitors must follow a pre-designated path around the ruins, accompanied by an accredited guide. Eating and drinking is banned inside, so no picnics, and selfie sticks are also banned (hurray!) In addition, there is an official limit of 500 permits per day for the Inca Trail, which includes porters and guides.

Over the years there have been many attempts to develop tourism infrastructure here. For example a no-fly zone was instituted in 2006 after helicopter fly-pasts were mooted. Sarah Miginiac, General Manager Latin America for our specialist tour operator G Adventures, isn’t opposed to all development however: “I think the way things work at Machu Picchu is a lot better in recent years, but there is definitely still room for improvement. My biggest issue is with infrastructure. At the moment everyone depends on this single-track railway access from the Sacred Valley or Cuzco to Aguas Calientes, which we have seen in the past is vulnerable to mudslides. And then I would also like to see a few small shelters placed on the Inca Trail, so that porters would not need to carry table and benches as well as everything else.”

Plane crazy?

“They’ve been discussing and planning the new airport at Chinchero since the 1970s,” says Mark Rice. “There is some resentment among local people, understandable I think, that Lima and international capital controls the big money in tourism. They feel it’s owed to them, and there’s also no denying that the current airport in Cuzco is at capacity. My concern is that the plans are outdated now, and that there are better ways to address these issues than a new airport that’s likely to damage the environment without returning much benefit.”

Bulldozers have now broken ground on the site of the proposed airport at Chinchero, in the Sacred Valley, but it is still far from certain whether it will go ahead. This is a massively controversial project, an airport that is intended to shuttle around five million passengers per year, that archaeologists, environmentalists and many others believe threatens the very asset that drives tourism to the area in the first place – the Incan heritage. Heather McBrayne, founder of our specialist operator Discover South America, is one of them: “I think the airport is a pretty disastrous idea and I’m hoping it won’t go ahead. Many people in Cuzco are worried the city will now be bypassed altogether which would be devastating economically. If I could change one thing about Machu Picchu tourism I think it would be to cancel that project.” Other operators however, are more sanguine and expect the project to have little effect on existing numbers of arrivals.

There are two big question marks over the project. Is the extra demand there that necessitates a new airport rather than redeveloping the existing one? And if that demand does exist, what does that mean for the restrictions on visitor numbers at Machu Picchu?
What can you do to help?
Visiting outside of the peak travel months of July and August can help relieve some of the pressure on Machu Picchu. April and May are typically cooler, dry and considerably quieter. It also means income out-of-season for communities such as Aguas Calientes that are largely dependent on tourism. And when you do spend, ensure you spend responsibly – both Cuzco and Aguas Calientes have plenty of locally owned restaurants and accommodations that will ensure your money remains in the local economy.

When on a trek, or at any archaeological site such as Machu Picchu, ensure you’re aware of and following rules that are in place to preserve the site and the environment. In 2020 several tourists were deported and one arrested for sneaking into Machu Picchu outside of visiting hours and damaging an ancient temple. It’s been reported that Peruvian authorities are now considering CCTV and drones to monitor the site. If important archaeological sites such as this are going to survive another five centuries, we need to treat them with the respect they deserve.

Porters’ rights

A maximum of 500 people, total, are allowed on the Inca Trail at any one time, and given the amount of equipment needed for a small group of trekkers to camp and eat for four days, the majority of passes are taken by porters. On average 20 porters are needed for a group of 12. Inca Trail porters are typically drawn from the indigenous community, and will often accompany groups up the Machu Picchu several times a month, carrying packs that weigh up to 20kg. Responsible operators work together to ensure that porters’ rights such as a fair rate of pay and avoiding overloading packs, are respected. As Olly Pemberton from our specialist operator Exodus Travels says, “The porters are integral to the experience, and the Inca Trail as we know it wouldn’t exist without them.”
What can you do to help?
Most obviously – book your Inca Trail trekking vacation with a responsible operator, one that is happy to discuss how it looks after its porters whether that be ensuring a decent wage, or that they carry no more than the prescribed weights. Remember that porters are not the only members of the Machu Picchu tourism industry at risk of exploitation. A responsible operator will make efforts to see that everyone they employ permanently or temporarily are treated and paid fairly.

Just because the porters are used to the work and seem to gallop up the trail ahead of you like mountain goats, don’t take for granted the enormous effort involved in seeing your group safely, and comfortably, along the Inca Trail. When the hat is passed around at the end for tips, please be generous.

Alternative Incan sites to Machu Picchu

Concerns about the effects of overtourism have led to necessary and largely successful restrictions on visitor numbers and behaviours at Machu Picchu, and also efforts to promote equally impressive, but less well-known Incan sites in the vicinity.

“Cultural management in this region has been pretty good in recent years,” says Mark Rice. “They’re trying to be proactive, opening up Choquequirao and Vilcabamba more, which will serve to relieve pressure on Machu Picchu, encourage tourists to stay longer in the area and also open up new avenues of tourism. I think they’re being developed in a responsible way, but there is a need to ensure local people can participate and benefit, such as the cooperatives in the area which I know some tour operators do visit.”

What can you do to help?
Machu Picchu is far and away the most popular attraction in Peru, which has the effect of other locations not getting the tourism they deserve, and sometimes need, to survive, while ensuring this fragile site continues to have issues with overtourism. If you intend to visit, then consider staying longer and seeing some of the other sites in the area too, whether Vilcabamba or Kuélap – they can be just as awe-inspiring as Machu Picchu, but much less busy, as they lack the name recognition.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Bill Damon] [Overtourism: McKay Savage] [Porters' rights: Jenny Mealing]
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