A new airport under construction near Machu Picchu is causing huge controversy among locals and academics who fear the destruction of the ancient Inca citadel.

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Many believe the airport puts the site under threat. Photo by The World in HDR/Shutterstock

The new airport is slated for Chinchero, a small Andean village that lies between Cuzco and Machu Picchu. It was initially meant to begin building in 2013 but, after many years of false starts, finally broke ground in January this year. Peru’s finance minister, Carlos Oliva called the airport "very necessary for the city of Cusco", according the Guardian.

In the meantime, things have changed. Visitors to the ancient wonder skyrocketed to 1.5 million in 2017, putting huge pressure on the ruins and forcing the site to introduce new rules that only allow visitors access in two shifts. Unesco has called the management to the site a “significant ongoing concern”. The government, however, says the airport will vastly improve infrastructure for tourists and boost the local economy.

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Overtourism is an increasing concern. Photo by Flavio Veloso

In this new landscape of overtourism, fears have grown about the impact of the airport and, earlier this year, a petition was set up to beg the president of Peru stop the construction of the airport. So far it’s gathered more than 5000 signatures, including more than 200 high-profile scholars. Dr Gabriela Ramos, a senior lecturer at Cambridge University, warned of a “total collapse of the site” if the plans go ahead.

“The Sacred Valley is also one of the most beautiful and environmentally-rich sites in the southern Andes”, she told Lonely Planet. “The airport will destroy the whole Sacred Valley of the Incas by bringing a number of tourists the area cannot sustain.”

She says there are also significant downsides to the local area. “It will seriously affect water provision for the city of Cusco and will destroy a magnificent landscape of enormous historical and cultural significance. There are many flaws in the project and there are technical, administrative, legal, environmental issues, to name a few, that have not been solved.”

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Experts say Cuzco could be hurt economically. Photo by Galyna Andrushko/Shutterstock

Mark Rice, author of Making Machu Picchu: The Politics of Tourism in Peru, agrees, saying that locals might actually lose economically. "Although the airport will increase tourist travel, Cusco runs the risk that international tourists will opt to continue directly to sights in the Sacred Valley and limit their time and spending." The stunning landscape will also take a hit and "be blighted by over 40,000 square meters of runways, terminals, and cargo facilities." Lonely Planet has reached out to the Peru Tourism Board for comment on the airport.

But with ground already broken on the new airport, can the project be stopped at this point? Dr Ramos is holding out hope. “At the moment there is a significant delay coupled with an eloquent silence from the part of the governmental authorities that are difficult to interpret. Is this silence due to the government's will to proceed with the project? Or does the silence mean they know they cannot deal with all the problems involved but prefer not to say that the project is not viable?”

In the meantime, visitors to Machu Picchu are advised to play their part in protecting the ancient ruins and Lonely Planet has created a guide to visiting Machu Picchu responsibly for those with upcoming trips.

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