ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Let's land now in one of those locations that is in the midst of a tourism controversy - Peru. Work has started on a $5 billion international airport that'll make it easier for tourists to reach the famed mountainous Machu Picchu ruins. NPR's Vanessa Romo reports the project alarms conservationists who fear it could cause irreversible damage to the fragile Inca citadel and the surrounding World Heritage Site.
VANESSA ROMO, BYLINE: Machu Picchu was built amid dramatic Andes peaks in the 15th century, perhaps as a royal retreat for the emperor. Archaeologists estimate that fewer than a thousand people were there at any one time before the site was abandoned in the mid-1500s. Today more than a million tourists a year trek the ruins. And once the new airport is completed in 2023, the government is counting on even more visitors. And that's alarmed conservationists.
NATALIA MAJLUF: There are indications that Machu Picchu has far exceeded its capacity to take in more tourists, and making that number of tourists grow is certainly dangerous.
ROMO: That's not Natalia Majluf, a Peruvian art historian and professor at the University of Cambridge in England. She says that the Inca civilization spread across the region, well beyond the citadel itself - across terraced lands connected by 600-year-old roads - and that the new Chinchero International Airport would threaten all that.
MAJLUF: The landscape is part of how the Incas constructed their empire. And placing an airport - and such a massive airport, at that - in the middle of this landscape is to destroy it forever.
ROMO: She's launched an online petition that's gathered more than 50,000 signatures from concerned archaeologists, historians and anthropologists.
MAJLUF: We are requesting the president to stop construction of the airport and consider another site for it.
JUAN STOESSEL: Of course, nobody wants to destroy anything.
ROMO: That's hotelier Juan Stoessel. He's been advocating for the airport for years as vice president of the tourism agency for Cuzco, once the capital of the Inca empire and now the gateway to the ruins.
For the last few decades, most visitors have arrived through the Cuzco airport, about 75 miles from Machu Picchu. But that facility only has one runway and can handle only a limited amount of international travel. The new airport hub will feature multiple runways, including direct flights from the United States, and ultimately handle as many as 8 million passengers a year according to the Center for Aviation.
STOESSEL: You cannot say don't bring more tourism to Peru because we don't know how to handle the tourism. There are so many examples of things like Machu Picchu that are fragile - no? - receiving much more tourism.
ROMO: With the right infrastructure, Stoessel says, Machu Picchu could have five times the number of visitors it has today. Two years ago, Peru increased the daily maximum number of visitors to just under 6,000 people. That's more than twice the number recommended by UNESCO, the U.N. cultural agency. As of now, Majluf's petition doesn't appear to be slowing down construction. In a visit to the site in May, President Martin Vizcarra said they're going ahead.
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PRESIDENT MARTIN VIZCARRA: (Speaking Spanish).
ROMO: He said, "the government has spent years studying the environmental impact of the airport. And this project is going to be good for Peru and the region."
Vanessa Romo, NPR News.
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