The president of Peru announced plans Wednesday to build an airport near the city of Cusco, base camp for the pre-Columbian ruins of Machu Picchu, in order to boost tourism to the surrounding region.
President Ollanta Humala said the $460 million facility would replace Velazco Astete Airport, which is only capable of handling limited daytime flights and has cost Peru key international airline links, including many with the United States.
"This new airport will not only mean more tourists will be able to come, but it will generate more jobs ... and help surrounding communities," Humala announced.
Machu Picchu is by far Peru's most popular tourist attraction and a major foreign exchange earner for the country, but many believe it already receives more visitors than the crumbling structure can handle.
The ancient citadel was built in the 15th century by the Incas and "rediscovered" by U.S. historian Hiram Bingham in 1911. Many artifacts Bingham took for display at Yale University were returned last year in honor of the 100th anniversary of its rediscovery.
Currently, officials allow some 2,500 visitors daily, and most make the trek to the 8,200-foot-high wonder either by foot or train from the town of Cusco, the former capital of the Inca Empire. Visitor numbers have grown steadily by about 6 percent each year, and, with each footstep, the citadel has slowly eroded.
Humala has said the new airport, set for construction next July in the heritage-rich town of Chinchero, will help the government tackle poverty "while always respecting ancient culture," but there are concerns that the project could damage the Pampas of Chinchero, an ecological monument that's part of Peru's Incan heritage.
Moreover, by facilitating more tourism to Machu Picchu, it could do more harm than good.
Stefaan Poortman, the director of international development at the Global Heritage Fund, believes Peru would do better to encourage visits to other heritage sites.
"Peru is like the Egypt of Latin America," he said. "There is a wealth of heritage sites spread out across the country, and Machu Picchu is by no means the centerpiece or the most important. It's iconic and well-known, but at Global Heritage Fund, we are very interested in how we can diffuse the impact of Machu Picchu to other sites around Peru."
Poortman said he worried that the proposed airport would give people less incentive to visit these other sites, like the Moche ruins along the coast or the Chachapoyas ruins in the north, that could help provide vital revenue sources throughout the country. As it stands now, the nation's tourism revenue is centered around one small region of the country.
Machu Picchu is a Unesco World Heritage Site, and it has come under criticism from the U.N. body for allowing uncontrolled access. In 2008, the World Heritage team said Machu Picchu had "urgent problems with deforestation, the risk of landslides, uncontrolled urban development and illegal access to the sanctuary."
The agency reiterated those concerns again in May 2012. The "Lost City of the Incas," it said, has become "a victim of its own success."