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3Qs: Machu Picchu’s anniversary cause for celebration and caution

Photo by iStock

Sunday marked the 100th Anniversary of the discovery of Machu Picchu — the ancient Incan city in Peru — by American archaeologist and history professor Hiram Bingham. Yanet Monica Canavan, the director of Northeastern’s Dialogue of Civilizations programs in Peru, and a native of the country, talks about the historical significance of the discovery of Machu Picchu, its impact on the economy in Peru and how modernization of the site may be causing irreversible damage.

Why was the discovery of Machu Picchu in 1911 a significant moment in history?

It was the first opportunity that our world had to learn about this mysterious Incan royal city located high among the mountains. In the 16th century, Spanish invaders destroyed most of the Incans’ civilization, but never found Machu Picchu during their conquest in Peru. For that, it is highly significant as a relatively intact cultural site, which has helped it garner attention from historians, academics and tourists across the globe. The discovery not only changed the perception of the world; it also changed the way people thought about the world and increased their understanding of the significance of ancient civilizations.

On a more personal note, it has provided incredibly enriching experiences for Northeastern students participating in the Peru Dialogue of Civilizations programs.

How important is Machu Picchu to Peru’s tourism industry and overall economy?

Peru’s economy has grown in the last few years due largely to tourism — the country’s third-largest industry. Machu Picchu is the most popular destination in Peru and since 1983, when it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, there has been an enormous increase in tourism, with as many as 2,000 people visiting the site daily.

Machu Picchu contributes to both the tourism industry and the entire economy by creating jobs and business opportunities and bringing new money into the country. The government uses the largest portion of revenue from Machu Picchu tourism for development projects.

In the 90’s, the Peruvian government approved the construction of a cable car, luxury hotel, boutiques and restaurants to provide Machu Picchu tourists with greater access and comfort. This was met with protest by locals and UNESCO, which is considering adding it to the List of World Heritage Sites in Danger. Should Peru work to preserve rather than modernize the site for tourist purposes?

This topic is very controversial, as tourism is critical to Peru’s economy. While increased tourism brings money to the country, it is also damages the historic ruins — foot traffic has caused slow but noticeable erosion to the site. Pollution has increased because of tourists who camp and litter along the Inca Trail. The nearby city of Aguas Calientes, once tranquil, is now a full of filth and noisy hotels that were built to accommodate tourists. Many natural species are also disappearing.

On the other hand, modernizing the site means bringing in outside dollars to support the community with new facilities and services. The railways benefit both locals and tourists. These endeavors also encourage Peruvian national pride and civic involvement, and the community is proud of its Incan heritage. Peruvians should aim to balance the advantages and disadvantages that tourism produces.