Construction of Machu Picchu's New International Airport Has Begun

CC BY 2.0. JanOSpixeles

While Unesco has asked Peru to limit visitors to the famous site, the government is making it easier for people to access.

Machu Picchu is one of the most famous archaeological sights in the world, located 8,000 feet above sea level in the Andes mountains of Peru. It is a stunning place that, in recent years, has attracted ever-increasing numbers of tourists – so much so that Unesco threatened to put it on an endangered sites list, which led to the Peruvian government implementing a daily quota for visitors and limiting entries to four hours.

So, if too many tourists are bad for the ruins, then how could the government possibly be justifying construction of a new international airport right near Machu Picchu? Indeed, it has already begun, with trucks clearing ground in the old Incan town of Chinchero and companies from Canada and South Korea bidding on the job.

Traveling to Machu Picchu

Currently, travelers must fly into Cusco and make their way to Machu Picchu from there. Cusco's airport has a single runway and, according to the Guardian, "is limited to taking narrow-bodied aircraft on stopover flights from Peru’s capital, Lima, and nearby cities such as La Paz, Bolivia." Cusco is only 75 km (47 miles) away from Machu Picchu, but there is no road that goes directly, "only train tracks and long and winding paths to travel by foot."

The new multi-billion-dollar airport will drop people off much closer to the site, just 20 minutes away from the Sacred Valley, essentially carrying tourists "directly to already fragile Inca citadel."

Criticism of the New Airport

From the Guardian:

"Critics say planes would pass low over nearby Ollantaytambo and its 134 sq mile (348 sq km) archeological park, causing potentially incalculable damages to the Inca ruins. Others worry that construction would deplete the watershed of Lake Piuray, which Cusco city relies on for almost half its water supply."

Chinchero itself is a historical gem, built 600 years ago to serve as a royal residence for the Incan leader, its ruins remarkably well preserved. Even while locals acknowledge the jobs an airport would bring, they have raised concerns about pollution, noise, and crime.

Archaeologists (and many others) are horrified, saying the airport will destroy Machu Picchu. A petition is circulating the Internet, signed by nearly 6,000 people at time of writing this article, asking the President and Peruvian government to reconsider the idea – a long shot, considering the project was announced in 2012, so it's not exactly coming out of the blue.

This is yet another example of what I've called industrial-style tourism, the moving of great numbers of people in ways that are as fast and cheap as possible and that give relatively little back to the communities that exist around them. Much of Machu Picchu's appeal lies in its inaccessibility; it must feel like an accomplishment just to get there, and yet this new airport will do away with that immediately.

At a time when we all need to be questioning our decisions to travel by air, construction of a new airport – as opposed to, say, better rail service from Cusco – does look like a grave mistake, undermining exactly what tourists are coming so far to see.