Traveling with a Conscience: The Importance of Conserving Machu Picchu’s Culture, Architecture and Ecosystem

Traveling with a Conscience: The Importance of Conserving Machu Picchu’s Culture, Architecture and Ecosystem




"Machu Picchu is a trip to the serenity of the soul, to eternal fusion with the cosmos, there we feel our own fragility. It is one of the greatest marvels of South America,” penned the renowned Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.



This sentiment is shared by avid travelers, history buffs and culture lovers who flock by the millions every year to witness the mystical ruins of Machu Picchu. The truth is, it’s one of the few places that people from all over the world say they want to see for themselves before they die. Each day, about 2,500 people do. Now, new developments could make the pilgrimage to the legendary Inca citadel easier than ever before.



A new airport located in the Sacred Valley could quadruple the number of travelers who come to the area to see the majestic mountains, the Inca capital turned Spanish colonial town Cusco and, of course, the mysterious Andean corridor sprinkled with Incan and pre-Columbian ruins.



As of now, visitors to the former Inca civilization must first fly (or bus) to Cusco and then either take a four hour train to Machu Picchu Pueblo, the town nearest to the ruins, or trek the Inca Trail. The current Cusco airport can accommodate two million passengers annually. But the new one, which crews would construct in the town of Chinchero, could handle as many as five million people by 2020, its projected opening date. As many as eight million passengers could pass through in later years.



This development has sparked both praise and concern for all stakeholders involved, including local communities,  tour operators, travelers and, perhaps most notably, the environment.



“For a region where the majority of the population still lives in poverty, the airport would create a catalyst to bring in extra tourist dollars,” explained Fabricio Ortiz, the president of the Association of Tourist Guides in Machu Picchu (Asociación de Guías Profesionales en Turismo, Residentes de Machu Picchu). “Both the construction and completion phases of the airport itself would spawn job creation. The eight million travelers would need somewhere to sleep, eat and shop and locals could fill that need, as well as their own financial needs, by working in the hotels, restaurants and stores that crop up.”



But Ortiz, who also works as a guide giving Machu Picchu tours for the travel company Latin America  for Less, also pointed out the new digs could ruin the ruins. While the development would quadruple the flow of finances through the Sacred Valley, he said it would also quadruple the number of people using the area’s natural resources, the volume of pollutants pumped into the air by way of vehicles and businesses and the foot traffic trekking through and on top of precious ruins. At risk is the delicate ecosystem as well as the locals who rely on it for their livelihoods.



“As a Cusqueño, I’m humbled that people from all over the world want to see Peru, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that the flood of tourists coming when the new airport is built does worry me,” said Ortiz. “Everything from the spike in visitors potentially harming the ruins to the infringing development inhibiting the local culture are concerns. And what about the flora and fauna here? Our ecosystem is incredibly delicate, so I worry about the impact of years of construction as well as the sharp increase in people coming in and out. The irony is, the ruins, local culture, and natural beauty are what sparked travel to Machu Picchu and they are what could end up being impacted the most.”



But there is a silver lining. As part of his job guiding tours for Latin America for Less, Ortiz reminds travelers that their impact doesn’t have to be a negative one for Machu Picchu, the Sacred Valley and beyond.



In Peru, tourism is a major economic driver. It not only creates jobs within industry itself, but also within other industries through the “multiplier effect.” When hospitality workers, tour guides and travel agents earn money, they spend it in their local communities, which ends up creating more jobs, often times small-scale enterprises which benefit small or rural communities. And visits to hotels, airports and restaurants generate tax dollars which usually go back into the community via roads, schools and housing.



The economic benefits often spill over into social benefits. The money generated by tourism can improve an area’s access to clean drinking water, sanitation and medical care. In the Andes, tourism preserves the highland culture as locals feel not only encouraged but also proud to keep traditional cuisine (cuy), celebrations (Inti Raymi) and handicrafts (symbolic textiles) a part of everyday life. Additionally, tourism allows for an exchange between natives and foreigners that creates a better cultural understanding and raise awareness to societal issues like human rights and poverty.



Finally, while the tourism industry can pose a threat to the environment via the construction of hotels, restaurants, roads and airports like the one in the Sacred Valley, it can also work to protect Mother Earth. One example is tourism to the Manu Biosphere Reserve on the edge of the Amazon, where travelers can witness first hand the importance of protecting the plants and animals that inhabit it. On top of that, ecotourism creates jobs so locals have a means of income that goes beyond the detrimental activities that have plagued the jungle for decades like deforestation, illegal mining, poaching and over-fishing.



“Everything we do, no matter how big or small, makes an impact,” noted Ortiz. “While we have no control over the airport being built, we do have control over our day-to-day actions. When it comes to travel, it is each of our responsibilities to make sure the impact we are making is a positive one.”



To learn more about Latin America For Less, check out their Member Profile.


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As the world's oldest and largest international ecotourism association, TIES seeks to be the global source of knowledge and advocacy uniting communities, conservation, sustainable travel..




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The Ecotourism and Sustainable Tourism Conference will highlight global challenges and local opportunities, supporting sustainable development of tourism and promoting solutions that balance conservation, communities and sustainable travel.

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