Machu Picchu Under Threat From Pressures of Tourism

By John Roach
for National Geographic News
April 15, 2002
In 1911, an innkeeper from the Peruvian town of Aguas Calientes led Hiram Bingham on a scramble up a steep, jungle-tangled embankment to the extensive ruins of an Inca settlement that was named Machu Picchu for the neighboring mountain.

Bingham, a professor from Yale University who was exploring in the region, later wondered in his book, Lost City of the Incas, whether anyone would believe what he had found.

Today, there's no question about the site's significance. More than 300,000 people a year make the trek to Machu Picchu to marvel at the 500-year-old structures built from blocks of granite chiseled from the mountainside.

They come by helicopter, train, and foot. They snap photos, meditate, and lounge in the sun. They come for a variety of reasons—to fulfill a romantic dream, tap into the energy of the Inca soul, or simply tick off a box on the list of the world's must-see sights.

"It certainly has appeal to everyone, whether they are interested in the history, or the magic, or just the stupendous beauty," said Carolyn Bointon, who formerly managed the Cusco clubhouse of the South American Explorers club and is now based in Quito, Ecuador.

Possible Landslide Risk

As a result of the overwhelming interest, Machu Picchu may be at risk.

Amid the growing concerns about the impact of tourism, some geologists also warned that a massive landslide could send the stone ruins crashing into the Urubamba River below.

Last year, New Scientist magazine reported on research conducted by geologists at Kyoto University in Japan that concluded Machu Picchu is at risk. The lead scientist, Kyoji Sassa, downplayed the urgency of the issue but said the landslide risk should be seriously assessed and stabilization projects undertaken to shore up the site.

The risk of a major landslide at Machu Picchu first raised international concern after two slides—one in December 1995 and another a month later—occurred on the road that zigzags up the steep embankment from Aguas Calientes.

The incidents put scientists and the conservation community on alert.

Amrit Chidakash, owner of Serenity Transformational Tours, a British Columbia-based outfitter that leads tours to Machu Picchu, worries that a major landslide may be imminent. "In a way it is like the risk of the earthquake on the [U.S.] West Coast—it will be a big one, just no one knows when it will happen."

Cable Car Pressures

The concern about landslides has bolstered arguments against a proposal to install a cable car that would replace the diesel-powered buses that carry tourists from Aguas Calientes up to the mountaintop ruins.

Conservation and cultural preservation organizations, including the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), say a cable car would mar the natural vistas and increase tourist traffic to an unsupportable level of at least 400,000 visitors a year.

The International Counsel of Scientific Associations prepared a landslide hazard assessment report for UNESCO in 1999. The report says that the upper station for the cable car would sit atop the second most active landslide region, and the constant vibrations from cable car operation could trigger a disaster.

A year ago, Peru's Ministry of Industry, Tourism, Integration, and International Commerce suspended indefinitely the contract that the government had awarded to Peru Hotels SA to build the cable car concession in 1998. The opposition by UNESCO was cited as one of the reasons for the suspension of the project.

Nevertheless, conservationists who have worked hard to put an end to the cable car project are not ready to celebrate. "There is no question that those interests behind the cable car intend for it to go ahead. It is a major piece in the money-earning potential for the people that have the hotel and railway," said Chidakash, who has created a Web site centered on opposition to the cable car project.

The owner of the cable car concession, Peru Hotels, is a subsidiary of Orient Express, an international hotel, train, restaurant, and cruise company based in England. The company owns the Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge at the entrance to the ruins and runs the tourist train from Cusco to Machu Picchu.

President Alejandro Toledo, who was sworn in on July 28, 2001, indicated his opposition to the cable car project when he pledged to the Peruvian people that he would safeguard their national heritage. But statements made in recent months by members of his administration are making the conservation community skeptical.

"President Toledo's vice president for tourism, Ramiro Salas, is speaking publicly of a cable car to the back of the ruins," said Bointon. "This suggests that pressure exerted by Orient Express and its partners may be succeeding in eroding President Toledo's pledge."

Protecting the Inca Trail

As conservationists wait to see how Toledo officially responds to the development and transportation pressures, tourists who decide to trek along the 30-mile (48-kilometer) portion of the Inca Trail to reach Machu Picchu have a new set of regulations to consider.

The stone trail, which crosses several high-altitude passes, has not escaped the effects of the boom in tourism. The number of people hiking along the pathway rose from 6,000 in 1984 to 66,000 in 1998, according to UNESCO. Tea bags and water bottles litter the route, where campsites are scarce.

In an effort to preserve the trail, Peru last year imposed restrictions that limit to 500 the number of people allowed on the trail each day. The fee to hike the trail rose from U.S. $17 to $50, and hikers must trek with a registered guide.

Unfortunately, said Bointon, the regulations have had little positive effect on trail conservation. "The locals say that there is still pollution, waste-disposal problems, and at times overcrowding. The trail is not that long after all, so even 500 people every day makes it busy."

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