Machu Picchu is both a cultural and natural UNESCO World Heritage Site. Since its discovery in 1911, growing numbers of tourists have visited the site each year, including 1,411,279 in 2017. As Peru’s most visited tourist attraction and major revenue generator, it is continually exposed to economic and commercial forces. In the late 1990s, the Peruvian government granted concessions to allow the construction of a cable car and a luxury hotel, including a tourist complex with boutiques and restaurants and a bridge to the site. Many people protested the plans, including Peruvians and foreign scientists, saying that more visitors would pose a physical burden on the ruins. A no-fly zone exists above the area. UNESCO is considering putting Machu Picchu on its List of World Heritage in Danger.
During the 1980s a large rock from Machu Picchu’s central plaza was moved to a different location to create a helicopter landing zone. In the 1990s, the government prohibited helicopter landings. In 2006, a Cusco-based company, Helicusco, sought approval for tourist flights over Machu Picchu. The resulting license was soon rescinded.
Authorities have struggled to maintain tourist safety. Tourist deaths have been linked to altitude sickness, floods and hiking accidents. UNESCO received criticism for allowing tourists at the location given high risks of landslides, earthquakes and injury due to decaying structures.
Nude tourism is a recent trend, to the dismay of Peruvian officials. In several incidents, tourists were detained for posing for nude pictures or streaking across the site. Peru’s Ministry of Culture denounced these acts for threatening Peru’s cultural heritage. Cusco’s Regional Director of Culture increased surveillance to end the practice.
How many tourists visit Machu Picchu annually?
The number of visitors to Machu Picchu each year has grown from the low 100,00s in the 1980s, to a peak of nearly 1.2 million tourists in 2013 – a 700% increase!
Curbing Tourism to Machu Picchu
Concern over the impact of tourism on the preservation of Machu Picchu is significant. UNESCO have threatened to place the site on their endangered list and archeologists and academics have openly expressed their concerns.
In response, the Peruvian Ministry of Culture reluctantly implemented new measures to curb tourism in 2011. The conflict between promoting tourism, which is a major contributor to the Peruvian economy, and conserving the famous site, continues to lead to mix priorities.
Entrance to the site has been set at a limit of 2,500 tourists a day, and access onto the popular Inca Trail, a 4-day trek that leads hikers into Machu Picchu, is limited to 500 permits a day (300 of which go to porters and guides).
There are also talks of new regulations coming into effect for 2015.
In particular, the Peruvian government will likely pass new rules that will restrict the flow of tourists through three pre-determined routes in the ancient city. All tourists will also need to join guided tours that are limited to 20 people, and will only be allowed to stop for short periods along demarcated places on the routes.
The Future of Machu Picchu
It is unlikely that Bingham ever imagined that the city he discovered in 1911 would become as popular as it is today, and he would likely turn in his grave if he knew how many tourists visit Machu Picchu annually.
Gone are the days where one could arrive in Cusco and decide to trek the Inca trail or visit Machu Picchu on the spur of the moment. Today one needs to book their visit months in advance, and will undoubtedly share the experience with 100s of tourists.
This means smart planning is key.
Choosing to visit during the wet non-peak season (October-April), especially if you are not trekking, can be a good idea. The shoulder months of March / April and October / November provide the best balance between lower tourist activity and potentially good weather.
Staying a night in Aguas Calientes before visiting Machu Picchu is also a good strategy as it means you can get up early to catch one of the first buses to ruins. The site is relatively quiet between 06:30 and 08:30, and gets particularly busy after 11:00.
Hanging around until the late afternoon before the site closes at 17:00 will also usually guarantee you some respite from the tourists hordes.
Alternatively why not consider a trek to one of many other Inca sites in the Cusco region. Choquequirao is a particularly impressive site that only gets 3,000-4,000 visitors a year, and can be combined with a visit to Machu Picchu!
Author: Mark Whitman