MACHU PICCHU, PeruThis Incan city holds an almost mystical power over those hardy enough to make the arduous journey to reach it: an architectural gem on a mountain ridge that was mysteriously abandoned centuries ago.
Spanish conquistadors destroyed most of the other Indian cities they conquered, yet overlooked Machu Picchu. It lay hidden under dense jungle for centuries until it was discovered by an American explorer 90 years ago.
Now, however, what time and the Spanish couldn't accomplish, tourism might. With 300,000 visitors trekking to the ruins yearly, some people worry that the number of visitors threatens to damage the Incan masterpiece.
"I hiked the Inca Trail for four days. And the morning we came to the entrance to Machu Picchu, there were 100 people there watching the sunrise," said Sandra Stamm, 32, a Swiss visitor. "And this is low season."
Some people say Peruvian authorities have been too eager to bring in more visitors and too slow to implement a master plan aimed at providing access while protecting Machu Picchu.
Shudders swept through the archaeological world last year when a Peruvian beer company was allowed access to film a television commercial, and a crane fell, chipping off a corner of a centuries-old stone sundial.
"The beer commercial incident shows the lack of administration," said Patricia Uribe, who represents UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, in Peru. "There are too many groups involved, and while there is a master plan, it's just a document and it hasn't been properly implemented."
More worries about Machu Picchu surfaced last month when Kyoji Sassa, a Japanese soils expert, published a scientific paper that cited the danger of landslides. Sassa said there might even be a catastrophic event that could threaten the entire city. Peruvian officials quickly played down the threat and said Machu Picchu has survived earthquakes and other threats for hundreds of years.
"I believe it is very premature to say Machu Picchu is about to collapse," said Fernando Fujita, director of archaeological heritage for the Peruvian National Institute of Culture.
The concerns over Machu Picchu come as tourism is becoming a major force in the world economy, increasing man-made threats to irreplaceable sites. With millions of well-heeled travelers now roaming the globe under the banners of eco- and adventure tourism, places that were once the destination of a few scientific or climbing expeditions a year are drawing thousands of visitors.
Machu Picchu is a prime example: One of its chief attractions has always been its isolation and the fact that it was left untouched. Sculpted in a high saddle between two mountain peaks, the city is perched over dizzying slopes that drop more than a thousand feet to the winding Urubamba River.
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