June 17, 2019.   Mountain Madness.

Alpaca at Machu Picchu, 1994.   Author’s photo.

Your first view of Machu Picchu, the mountaintop Inca citadel in south-central Peru, is never forgotten. The scenery is almost comically dramatic — the Andean peaks and valleys as preposterously vertical as a child’s crayon rendering. It is, just maybe, the most staggeringly impressive tourist site on earth.

There are no roads to Machu Picchu. One must fly first to the regional capital of Cuzco, then travel onward by train or embark on a multi-day hike. Its remoteness, and the logistical challenges of getting there, are part of what make it such an exciting and enchanting spot. It takes some planning, and relatively few people bother. Indeed, Machu Picchu is one of a vanishing number of tourist icons that isn’t grossly overcrowded.

But if the Peruvian government has its way, this all will be changing. Ground has broken on a new airport that will permit tourists to fly directly to the ruins. Chinchero International Airport will become the nation’s second busiest, with the capacity to handle up to seven million passengers annually and a runway long enough to accommodate jets from the U.S. and Europe.

Currently about a million people per year visit Machu Picchu. That’s roughly 2,700 per day, which by global tourist standards is a small and manageable volume. The impact of a major nearby airport — the effects to the ruins themselves, and to the surrounding countryside and towns — capable of more than quintupling the number of visitors is almost too depressing to imagine.


What’s happening in Peru, of course, is part of a wider conversation and the great tourism conundrum of our time: how do we encourage people to celebrate and savor a destination without simultaneously ruining it?

How bad can it get? Have you ever been to Amsterdam, Prague, or Barcelona in the summer? In Thailand and the Philippines, entire islands had to be closed off from tourist throngs to save them from destruction. Today, thanks in no small part to cheap jet fuel and budget airfares, one can fly nonstop from major cities across Europe, Asia and the Gulf to places like Phuket, Krabi, Ko Samui and Cebu.

As a pilot and air travel advocate, I’m generally in the business of encouraging and promoting tourism by air. But this begins to feel unconscionable when such activities run counter to the whole point of travel, undermining the very things that make it special.

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