The bulldozers arrived in January to clear the site of Peru’s newest and most controversial airport. Chinchero International, which is expected to shuttle five million passengers a year, is being built in the Sacred Valley of the ancient Inca empire.

Designed to improve tourist access to the nearby citadel of Machu Picchu, the airport is being built almost 4,000 metres up in the Andes mountain range, in what archaeologists say is a very fragile area, packed with Incan relics.

Nearly 20,000 people signed a petition in January - many of them archaeologists, anthropologists and historians - calling on President Martín Vizcarra to block plans for the airport, claiming the project would cause "irreparable damage to the culture of Peru and humanity".

Although Machu Picchu is the main magnet that draws a million tourists each year, most pass the surrounding Chinchero district without realizing it is also the site of an Incan royal estate built six centuries ago by the son of the founder of Machu Picchu.

A unique landscape

Conservationists say the area is a rare example of surviving Incan buildings and terraced landscaping that have been untouched by modern development - and are urging the government to rethink plans for the airport.

The Sacred Valley was the heartland of the Inca civilization, which, in the 15th century, was the world’s largest empire, stretching from modern-day Colombia to Argentina.

The Peruvian authorities say an archaeological survey found no evidence of Incan artefacts on the airport site. They argue the country urgently needs a replacement for the nearby Cusco Airport, which can only handle smaller passenger planes.

Runway restrictions mean Cusco can't operate long-haul international flights. Tourists must stop over in Lima or La Paz, Bolivia before flying to Cusco. Supporters of the new Chinchero airport say it will create jobs and economic growth for the region.

Peru generates over $20 billion a year from tourism. Tourist revenues are growing 5% a year and will account for more than a 10th of the country's gross domestic product by the middle of the next decade, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council. Meanwhile, Machu Picchu is the country’s most popular tourist destination, says tripadvisor.com.

Growth rate of direct contributions to Latin American GDP from travel and tourism in 2018
Growth rate of direct contributions to Latin American GDP from travel and tourism in 2018
Image: Statista

Machu Picchu Puts a Cap on Tourism

Even before plans for the airport got underway, Peru was struggling to manage the damaging effects of an abundance of tourists.

In mid-2017, Peruvian authorities implemented a paid ticketing system at the citadel, grouping visitors into morning and afternoon sessions in order to manage the flow. Still, nearly 6,000 tourists trek up to the citadel throughout a given day.

Most recently, officials at Machu Picchu decided to restrict access to three key areas at the site - the Temple of the Sun, the Temple of the Condor and the Intihuatana Stone - for the second half of this month. The measures, which will limit visitation to just three hours a day from the 15th to the 28th of May, are "necessary to conserve Machu Picchu, given the evidence of deterioration," according to Peru's ministry of culture.

But it remains to be seen whether the authorities will bow to growing pressure public pressure and reverse plans for an airport that could only further that deterioration.