Machu Picchu Under Threat From Pressures of Tourism

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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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