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Relief in Peru as Machu Picchu reopens

Llamas graze during the reopening of the citadel of Machu Picchu in Cuzco, Peru, 1 April 2010
Machu Picchu, Peru's top tourist site, was closed for two months

By Dan Collyns
BBC News, Machu Picchu, Peru

You do not have to be an archaeologist to figure out that the Incas did not have hordes of visitors in mind when they constructed Machu Picchu.

Built 2,500m above sea level on an almost vertical, thickly forested mountain top, the 15th-Century ruin was a sacred site that almost certainly served as an astronomical observatory for the sun-worshipping Incas.

Its location is partly why it is so breathtakingly stunning and adds to the magical allure that draws nearly a million tourists a year.

But it is also the reason why Peru was forced to close it off to all visitors throughout February and March this year after the railway that connects it with the rest of the country was damaged by mudslides and flooding.

Financial loss

About 4,000 tourists were stranded for several days in Aguas Calientes - the town underneath the ruins - at the end of January, until they were airlifted out in Peruvian Air Force helicopters.

The reopening of Machu Picchu at the beginning of April was cause for genuine celebration among Peruvians.

This disaster has been more disruptive to our industry than the financial crisis and swine flu combined
Richard Leon
Peru for Less

As sunshine turned to showers a few hundred tourists wandered among the ruins, among them the Hollywood actress, Susan Sarandon, who had been invited by the Peruvian government to lend the event some star quality.

Beyond the symbolic significance, the reopening should start to stem a loss of revenue that Peru's Tourism Minister Martin Perez told the BBC amounted to some $185m (£122m) for the two-month closure.

It will also revitalise the nearby city of Cuzco, which has been operating at 30% capacity. More than half the 400,000-strong population rely on tourism for a living, according to Roger Valencia, vice-president of the city's chamber of commerce.

Infrastructure plans

Although the region has other sources of income, tourism is the big employer here with everyone from hotel owners to street vendors relying on the daily flow of about 2,000 tourists who visit Machu Picchu.

"This disaster has been more disruptive to our industry than the financial crisis and swine flu combined", said Richard Leon, director of travel company Peru For Less.

A foreign tourist is helped from a helicopter after being flown from Machu Picchu, Peru
Tourists had to be airlifted out after mudslides and flooding

"Almost every one of our clients plans on visiting Machu Picchu during their trip and more than 800,000 people visited the site last year, so the recent closure has caused us significant problems.

"Although they did a great job in evacuating people from the area, it's clear that the authorities were not prepared for problems on this scale, despite warnings that the infrastructure was at risk."

Mr Perez says he is the first to admit that the Incas built Machu Picchu in "a very difficult place".

But he told the BBC that infrastructure was now a priority and that a new road to Machu Picchu was under construction. He also mentioned setting up helicopter access.

Talk of more routes sets off alarms bells for the UN's cultural body, Unesco, which has in the past warned that uncontrolled access could damage the World Heritage Site.

Imbalance

But the Peruvian authorities appear to have thought of that. The country's National Institute of Culture (INC) announced it would ration the number of entry tickets to Peru's most popular tourist destination.

What is clear is that Machu Picchu is zealously coveted by an array of entities, both national and international.

The crisis caused by its closure prompted calls from the tourism industry to break its over-dependence on Machu Picchu and diversify the sector.

Susan Sarandon during the reopening of the citadel of Machu Picchu in Cuzco, Peru, 1 April 2010
American actress Susan Sarandon lent star quality to the reopening

"Machu Picchu is a breathtaking place to visit, but sites like Choquequirao and Kuelap are equally impressive and receive a fraction of the visitor numbers," said Richard Leon.

"I'd like to see more investment in these other sites to help address the imbalance and overemphasis on Machu Picchu."

But for now all seem united in breathing a sigh of relief that the ruins are undamaged by the heavy rains and once more open to the public.

"It's not only a national treasure. It's in Peru but we have to take care of it for all of humanity," said Mr Perez.

Machu Picchu is Peru's strongest brand, a national symbol, an enigma, an archaeological wonder, even - for some - a source of mystical powers.

For now - the desert geoglyphs known as the Nazca lines, Lake Titicaca, the Colca Canyon, the Lord of Sipan tombs, the Kuelap fortress - will continue to play second fiddle to Machu Picchu.

The number of holidays cancelled by European, Japanese and US tourists is clear evidence that for almost all first-time travellers to Peru, it's Machu Picchu or bust.



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SEE ALSO
Peru's Machu Picchu site reopens
02 Apr 10 |  Americas
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Machu Picchu airlift is completed
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Machu Picchu rail link still shut
28 Jan 10 |  Americas
Peru begins Machu Picchu airlift
26 Jan 10 |  Americas
Peru country profile
31 Jul 12 |  Country profiles

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