Machu Picchu, Peru
Latin America Responsible Travel

Overtourism at Machu Picchu & How You Can Leave a Lighter Footprint

Travel has the potential to help developing economies, break down cultural barriers, cushion the blow of financial crashes and encourage environmental conservation. But when it comes to tourism, is too much of a good thing a bad thing?

Over tourism is a relatively recent issue that has rapidly developed over the past few decades in which too many visitors flock to particular destinations, causing negative impacts and undesired consequences. Over tourism occurs when local residents are pushed out due to rent increases to make way for vacation rentals, when wildlife is threatened and natural environments are destroyed, when narrow streets become congested with tourist vehicles and noise pollution while views of landmarks are skewed due to massive crowds. Some local residents such as those in the popular cities of Barcelona and Venice claim that tourists are the new terrorists.

Thanks to social media, destination hotspots such as the ancient Incan citadel of Machu Picchu are some of the most impacted areas as posting trending travel pics on Instagram has evolved into a new type of status symbol. Besides being one of the most famous archaeological sites in the world, Machu Picchu is by far the most popular tourist attraction in all of Peru, receiving more than a million tourists every year.

To discover more about how the increase of mass tourism has impacted these ruins as well as how responsible tourism can play a role in its preservation I spoke to Mark Atkins of Peru TravelCo., a travel professional who has been organizing trips to Peru for the past 20 years.

LMT: As someone who has lived in Peru for the past 20 years, have you noticed any negative impacts to Machu Picchu and other popular tourist destinations (like Cuzco) with the increase of mass tourism over recent years?

MA: There has been a significant increase in visitor numbers to Peru in the last 20 years. In the mid 1990,’s the country was only just recovering from an internal struggle with terrorists, which had kept away all but the most intrepid foreign visitors for ten years. But when the violence ended, visitor numbers have increased on average 10% per year for the last 20 years, rising from 800K in 2000 to 4.4 million in 2018. These include all entrants into the country, including business travellers. However, about 80% of the 4.4Million are on holiday and visit at least one of the many historic sites and natural wonders found in the country.

Effects in the cities are subtle, but over a period of time, traditional businesses can be priced out of the city center and replaced by tourist companies such as restaurants and travel agencies. This will alienate the locals and change the feeling of a city. Just look around the main square in Cusco, the expensive restaurants and lounge bars overlooking this lovely plaza are now well beyond the budget of the vast majority of local inhabitants. Also the cost of rent in the city center precludes most local businesses, which have migrated to the peripheries of the city.

Cuzco, Peru
Cuzco, nestled in the Peruvian Andes, is considered the gateway to Machu Picchu, receiving just as many visitors as the ruins

Historic sites are also under threat. A few years ago ancient Inca terraces in Ollantaytambo were bulldozed in order to allow better vehicle access through this historic town. Also there are plans to build a new international airport in Chinchero (close to Cusco), which will have a major effect on this traditional weaving community.

Weaving demonstrations in Chinchero, Peru
The sleepy Andean village of Chinchero is known for its weaving community

And of course, this significant increase in tourism has also had a negative impact on the environment. Perhaps one of the worst examples I have seen recently was at rainbow mountain, a colorful ridge just a couple of hours from Cusco. With increased interest from visitors, a small glacial lagoon was drained to create a parking lot, destroying the habitat of several species of wading birds. Local inhabitants have purchased horses for hire to tourists, but now cruelty and poor animal welfare are a common sight. Also in mid 2018, two small villages close to the mountain, confronted each other over sales opportunities and one person was actually killed during street battles.

Down on the coast, with increased boat trips off the coast of Mancora, local operators are trying to agree a common operating policy to minimize the harmful affects of sightseers on migrating humpback whales and sea turtles. Similarly, due to the lack of regulation, it is the task of  individual operators in the Amazon to impose restrictions on ethically dubious activities such as evening caiman safaris, intrusive otter observation and monkey feeding.

LMT: To address the issue of over tourism, in 2016 the Peruvian government initiated a few changes to visitor access at Machu Picchu. What changes, if any, have been enforced? Have they been helpful?

MA: For the last 10 years, the Peruvian government has been under pressure from the UN conservation agency, UNESCO, to prevent degradation to the Machu Picchu Historic Sanctuary. Remember this is not just the main ruins, it is also 32,000 hectares of pristine Andean Cloud forest, also a network of Inca trails and other Inca ruins such as Wiñay Wayna, Puyupatamarca and Llactapata. It is a natural habitat for Spectacled Bear, Andean Condors, also countless species of hummingbirds and orchids.

The first restrictions into the park were introduced in 2005, when the number of hikers on the Inca trail, a popular 4-day hike to Machu Picchu, was limited to just 500 people a day. Previously entry into the park was uncontrolled, as many as 1000 walkers a day were on the hike, which caused serious erosion the trail, accumulation of trash and health risks due to lack of toilets. For the ten years after 2005, many of these issues in the larger park area were resolved due to lower numbers of hikes and tighter entry regulations.

But in 2016, the authorities turned their attention to the specific affects of day trippers to the ruins, who travel by road and rail to the ruins of Machu Picchu. There was a lot of pressure from UNESCO to limit visitor numbers, but there was some resistance from local government and businesses, as you can imagine they receive a lot of income from entrance tickets, trains, buses, hotels and restaurants.

Initial efforts stuttered and by the end of 2016, only minor conservation efforts were enforced. These included restrictions to some areas of the ruins such as the peaks of Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu mountain. In 2017, the situation stayed much the same, although the park authorities tried to improve the flow of tourist through the site by introducing tickets with scheduled time slots, in an effort to regulate the number of visitors evenly throughout the day and to avoid “rush hours” which tend to happen late morning. Unfortunately, I do not think any of this had much of an effect.

However, in 2018, we had the gradual introduction of increased park staff who usher the visitors through the ruins on established trails, in an attempt to keep the average time spent in the ruins to around 4 hours.

We have lots of our clients who go to Machu Picchu and they find that 4 hours is plenty of time to enjoy the ruins at a reasonable pace. Also, common sense restrictions on plastics, food, luggage and smoking are all welcome measures to reduce the problem of trash and pollution.

LMT: Are there any changes/restrictions to Machu Picchu coming up in the near future?

 MA: All of the measures I mentioned previously, I totally agree with and we are slowly going in the right dirrection … BUT …. we may be swimming against the current because tourist statistics continue to rise.

In 2018, the number of visitors to Machu Picchu rose to 1.6 million people, an increase of 12% compared with 2017. With increased traffic, the ruins will undoubtedly strain under the pressure. Some minor subsidence (or sinking) is already occurring at the ruins, while the narrow road from the station to the ruins is already insufficient at busy midday periods and the village of Aguas Calientes has grown in an uncontrolled fashion – leading to a rather ugly architecture and an infrastructure with major issues in regards to waste disposal.

Up until now, there has been a resistance from local government to impose a strict limit on visitor numbers. In 2019, entrance tickets sales are limited to 5600 per day, which should just about be enough to cover current demand. But what will happen in a year or two when more visitors want tickets?

I suspect that the government will not want to turn away visitors and will find some way to allow more people into Machu Picchu. In the short term, keep in mind for 2019, tickets for the ruins are now sold with specific schedules, allowing entrance into the ruins are only certain times. Make sure your entrance tickets fits in with your train schedule. Once inside the ruins, visitors are kept on specific trails until your 4 hours are finished and you will have to make you way to the exit.

LMT: What are some things travelers to Machu Picchu can do to visit responsibly and leave a lighter footprint?

Apart from hiking, Machu Picchu and the nearby village of Aguas Calientes are only accessible by train, this leaves them with a serious waste disposal problem. Visitors should try not to leave any waste or trash in the area, it is much better if they carry it out with them and dispose of it in Cusco. Also avoid some of the sourvenirs involving natural products, I have seen dried butterflies sold and wooden walking sticks possibly cut from local forests, such examples of local species depredation should be avoided. Use your own water bottle which you can fill up in hotels and restaurants, in order to avoid the repeated purchase of water in single-use plastic bottles.

The Salkantay Trek, Peru
Crossing streams while in the jungle basin section of the Salkantay Trail, one of the trekking options to Machu Picchu

Additional Tips for leaving a lighter footprint in Peru

  • While at Machu Picchu, stick to the designated trails and stay within your allotted time frame marked on your entrance ticket (even if not enforced)
  • Opt for locally owned hotels rather than international chains and dine at locally owned restaurants (not just the ones targeted to tourists)
  • Choose a responsible tour operator such as Audley Travel (one of Mark Atkin’s closest business partners). Responsible tour operators employ local guides and offer ethical tours that have positive impacts on the local economy and environment
  • If visiting the Amazon, choose eco-friendly lodges
  • Spread out your tourism dollars by visiting other parts of the country to relive some of the burden from Machu Picchu and it’s surrounding areas. Some of the less visited but equally amazing destinations within Peru include: Arequipa, Colca Canyon and Northern Peru (Chan Chan, Kuelap and Gocta Waterfall)
Santa Catalina Monastery, Arequipa
The Santa Catalina Monastery in Arequipa is essentially it’s own walled-in city that has been housing nuns since 1579. This unique tour is a highlight of the less traveled city of Arequipa
For an authentic taste of local life in Peru, get off the beaten path by visiting smaller villages in the Colca Canyon

If you enjoyed this article, you may also enjoy Beyond the Inca Trail: A Local’s Guide To Cuzco & Alternative Treks to Machu Picchu and How to Responsibly Travel Off the Beaten Path



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