Famed as the Inca heartland, Machu Picchu is one of the most visited archaeological sites in the world. In the peak summer months, more than 5,000 people visit the site each day, double the maximum of 2,500 advised by UNESCO. Overtourism is a very real danger here — and not just to the detriment of visitors’ experience, but also the site itself.

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For example, the Inca Trail — the 26 mile trek from kilometre 82 to Machu Picchu — has seen a massive influx of hikers over the past few decades. In 1984, just 6,000 people walked the trail. By 2000, this number had grown to 84,000, leading to erosion along the path and mountains of rubbish, with plastic water bottles a particular problem.

Japanese scientists from the University of Kyoto caused further panic in 2001 when their research suggested that the slopes on the western side of Machu Picchu were slipping down the hill by 1cm a month, prefacing a potentially catastrophic landslide for the site. Amongst their reasons for the movement was the number of tourists unsettling the site’s subsoil.

This, along with the ever-growing number of visitors to Machu Picchu and increased pressure from UNESCO, forced the Peruvian government to take action.

It started by introducing limits on the number of visitors to both Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail. In 2001, unaccompanied walks on the Inca Trail were banned and strict rules were imposed on tour companies, such as banning the use of unauthorised campsites, forcing all rubbish to be removed by tour companies and limiting the weight porters could carry to 20kg. By 2005, new rulings limited the total number of people allowed to hike the trail to 500 and hiking permits were introduced.

In 2011, the Peruvian government introduced new regulations on visitors to Machu Picchu. The total number of people entering the citadel was capped at 2,500, with entrances to the Huayna Picchu trail limited to just 400. So how did we end with more than 5,000 people visiting Machu Picchu each day?

At a stroke on July 1st 2017, the Peruvian government — somewhat cynically — made all entrance tickets valid for just half a day, instead of a full day. At the same time, it raised the number of tickets for sale from 2,500 to 6,534. In theory, the site sees the same amount of footfall each day. In practice, half a day is enough for most visitors to the site.

It then updated visitor rules in 2019, replacing the half-day option with hourly tickets. The idea is to flow visitors through the site in a more orderly fashion, replacing the early morning rush and limiting the number of visitors inside the site at any one time. It also reduced the total number of daily visitors to Machu Picchu, capping it at 5,600 and cut the number of circuits to walk around to two.

However, given that the Peruvian government is aiming to double the number of tourists to the country to seven million by 2021, more wear and tear on Machu Picchu and its trails seems inevitable.

This is the juxtaposing challenge that lies at the heart of overtourism. Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail are historical sites well worth spending time and money on. For the Peruvian government and people, the Inca citadel is its most marketable venue and biggest cash cow. However, the more it encourages people to visit — and numbers are growing as travel becomes cheaper and easier — the more it harms the very site it needs.

Alternatives to Machu Picchu

Peru is awash with historic sites. Exploring beyond Machu Picchu opens up much more of the country’s unique place in history. From the feline-obsessed religious ideology of Chavín de Huántar to the cloud forest Chachapoyas warriors and Kuélap, there is much to see and learn about.

Ultimately, each traveller needs to make a decision about whether they should visit Machu Picchu or not. Just remember — Peru’s archaeological brilliance extends beyond its famous Inca ruins.

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