The popularity of Machu Picchu as a destination for cultural and adventure tourism has been a huge success story for the Andean people. It has comfortably been the most-visited attraction in Peru for years now, was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983, and trekking the Inca Trail to reach it is a staple of many a bucket list. Mark Rice is a historian, and author of Making Machu Picchu
, which explores 20th-century tourism in Peru: “The prestige of Machu Picchu and its importance to the Peruvian tourism industry has allowed Andean people to say to Lima ‘you should be celebrating us and our culture’. And I think the Peruvian state is now happy to celebrate Andean folklore and Incan history - although it still tends to sidestep the contemporary. They’re less interested in talking about land rights, for example.”
But Machu Picchu is also one of the world’s most high profile victims of overtourism
– in 2008 the World Monuments Fund placed the ancient Incan citadel on its Watch List of 100 Most Endangered Sites, due to the environmental degradation resulting from unsustainable visitor numbers. Not long afterwards, the Peruvian government and UNESCO agreed that numbers would be limited to 2,500 per day going forwards.
And of those 2,500, a not insignificant number arrive by the classic route, trekking the Inca Trail
. They are accompanied by a veritable army of porters, the Peruvian equivalent of sherpas on Everest, scaling the heights with heavy packs strapped to their backs, at speeds to make you gasp.
Responsible tourism operators are working together to make sure that these hard-working and always-cheerful porters are treated with the respect they deserve, which includes a decent wage and ensuring they are not carrying too much. One of our operators, Exodus Travels, having realised that most of their porters had never even seen inside Machu Picchu, has so far arranged for 100 of them to take a guided tour in their own language to see what all the fuss is about.
It’s also worth pointing out that the tourism industry around Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail has undergone rapid growth, and often employs indigenous people at low wages. So while porters are some of the most visible, theirs are not the only rights that need to be considered.