From an Uncontaminated Paradise to a Mass Tourism Site
In order to understand the phenomenon of tourism in Machu Picchu, one must first look back at how tourism arrived and developed in Cusco. We spoke to Miguel Miguel Zamora-Salas, manager of the National Archeological Park of Machu Picchu (PANM), to get a better understanding of the tourism industry in Peru, how it has evolved through the years and how it affects Machu Picchu today.
In the aftermath of the 1950 earthquake, which left most of the buildings of Cusco in ruins, the reconstructions did not only alter the character of the city, but also acted as a catalyst for a greater change in the region. This included the contributions made by the state for the development of infrastructure for transport and accommodation, and its provision of legal and economic support as well as promotion of international aid, which then led to aiding tourism in Machu Picchu later on.
Tourism has greatly developed over the years in Machu Picchu. In fact, it has grown so much that it has become the synonymous of travelling to Peru (Elizabeth Matsangou, 2019). However, the increasing popularity of the site over the years has also become its greatest weakness. Each day, thousands of visitors stream through this archaeological site, most of whom do not understand its importance, significance and structures in its entirety, and thus fail to think about their unsustainable visits, which constantly cause irreversible damage.
“There is a great variety of tourists and, if we divide them by their motivations, we have visitors who are very eager to know the past and history of the site, others who are adventure lovers, some who like nature and biodiversity, and then we have the others, that are motivated by the fashion of visiting famous places.”
Given the immense popularity of the site, it is vital to consider the long term consequences that a site of this magnificence may endure due to tourism. That brings us to the topic of sustainability. According to Miguel, the country of Peru has yet to achieve sustainable development in terms of tourism. The reputation of Machu Picchu drives so many visitors to the country that they often neglect other remarkable attractions in the region. Moreover, making the management of the site even more difficult, only certain parts of the sanctuary are open to tourists, which increases the traffic in specific areas instead of dispersing the crowd in different locations.
“I believe that in our country in general we have not yet managed to achieve these objectives in an integral way. In Machu Picchu, where services have grown without any planning or control, we can affirm that tourism is not entirely sustainable, mainly in terms of its environmental effects.”
Even though Machu Picchu cannot be classified as an example of sustainable tourism, Miguel believes that the management of the site has been abiding by the rules of UNESCO and has been doing quite well in trying to preserve the site and maintaining its authenticity and integrity:
“…By assigning a specific quota of maximum number of visitors, the citadel or llaqta of Machu Picchu is the first destination in the country with this type of tourist management, and consequently serves as an example of sustainable management of tourist flows.”
Nevertheless, the unplanned growth of tourism has been an ongoing issue for the management of the town of Machu Picchu. This could be counteracted through further policies and regulations. For instance, Miguel believes that the current situation and the circumstances the world is now facing definitely have a silver lining:
“I consider the COVID-19 pandemic, which paralyzed Machu Picchu, Cusco, Peru and the whole world, to be a great opportunity to correct the mistakes of the past and re-emerge with better management schemes.”
Understanding tourism segments can be very helpful in solving issues of sustainability, creating policies, and strengthening the existing regulations to protect the site further. Sustainability does not only imply environmental efforts, but also includes the betterment of the local people and community as a whole. This is an important fact to reflect on, especially when categorizing tourists based on their motivations to visit. In fact, introducing policies to help involve locals in the tourism sector would also be very effective and sustainable.
It is also essential, however, to educate foreign tourists and emphasize Machu Picchu’s history and spiritual significance, in order to allow visitors to reflect on their actions and foster a more responsible behavior when traveling.
“The tourist who arrives in Machu Picchu visits the most emblematic place of the Inca Culture, the symbol of the empire, an archaeological site that has been hidden in the vegetation for 400 years.”
The unforeseen occurrences that led to the lockdown of various countries and their popular tourism attractions has been deemed beneficial for Machu Picchu in a certain way, as this “alone” time has allowed for the site to undergo conservation and renovation work, which would otherwise not be possible with the visitors wandering around.
Nevertheless, even though time and accessibility are no longer issues, the COVID19 pandemic has left the site with less than minimal staff to guarantee the care and preservation of the site. Moreover, as the town of Machu Picchu developed its main services around the tourism sector (hotels, restaurants, guides, sale of handcrafts, etc.), the standstill in these activities has a terrible economic impact on the community. The uncertainty of the future would only result in a very slow recovery, as the number of people willing to travel will most probably be lower than required, at least for a long while.
(Miguel is a Peruvian Tourism Planning and Management specialist, with 40 years of experience in regional tourism development in Cusco. This field of expertise has widely developed since 1975. From 1996 to 1998, as Regional Director of Tourism of Cusco, he created a unified policy towards economic development. As National Director of Tourism for the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Tourism from 2002 to 2006, he extended the principles applied in Cusco to a general planning strategy. In 2011, he directed the most successful Intiraymi Festival, inviting over 650 artist to the event and receiving the widest press coverage ever recorded for this occurrence. Since 2014, he has been Head of the Visitor Services Office and Tourist Services in the National Archaeological Park of Machupucchu / OAVST-PANM and has been integrating this experience with Tourism Planning courses in Japan and Poland, as well as academic activity at the University of San Marcos Lima and Cenfotur in Cusco.)