Machu Picchu airport plan: A world wonder is about to change forever

It's not often a tourist attraction is destroyed before your eyes. Mostly this stuff happens gradually, without your even realising it.

These famous places change over years, and over decades. They become gradually more popular, more hotels spring up, more flights arrive, more people turn up, until eventually the place you once loved is unrecognisable.

Check out Siem Reap in Cambodia, once a tiny, friendly backpacker haven, but these days a booming tourist town with direct flights from most of Asia. Or see the Taj Mahal, surely once just an interesting site in a country full of them, but today an attraction that has spawned an entire industry and an entire town around it.

Popularity is a sluggish beast. It takes time to tighten its grip.

It's been the same, really, with Machu Picchu, the famed Incan citadel in Peru. What was once an obscure, adventure-travellers-only destination has slowly gone mainstream, has begun attracting more tourists than it can really handle – at 1.7 million visitors in 2017, more than double the limit recommended by UNESCO.

Machu Picchu is big; it's popular. It appears on many a bucket list. And yet with a single move, it's about to go viral. Without wanting to be too hyperbolic, it will never be the same again.

Machu Picchu is getting a new airport. Work has recently begun on an international facility at Chinchero, about an hour outside of Cusco, on the road towards Aguas Calientes and the famed Incan ruins.

Chinchero is already built land, critics say, with terraces and pathways there carved by the Incas. It's also the gateway to the Sacred Valley, and planes flying in there would be cruising low over protected sites such as Ollantaytambo. This will be happening by 2023, when the airport is expected to be finished.

These aren't just any old planes flying in, either. The present airport in Cusco has one runway that can only handle small aircraft, which means it's mostly only domestic flights arriving. The Chinchero airport, meanwhile, will be able to handle large, wide-body planes coming in from all over Latin America, and even direct from the US.

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You can't even imagine it, standing in a place as peaceful and beautiful as Ollantaytambo, the Incan town nestled high in the snow-capped Andes, and watching as roaring plane after roaring plane flies in low overhead. You can't even picture the amount of tourists who will pile off those jets and head straight to Machu Picchu on the train, to turn the big crowds into unmanageable masses.

To me though, it's not even the crowd numbers that will be the problem. That can be capped. And the Peruvian government will have to do that if it hopes to hang on to Machu Picchu's heritage listing.

The problem for me is that it's going to be even easier to get to Machu Picchu, and it shouldn't be easy to get to this place. Even right now you can get to the site in a bit over three hours on the train from Cusco (after a flight from Lima), and that's too short. From Chinchero it will be about two hours. Maybe even less.

But Machu Picchu should take you days to get to from the Sacred Valley. This place is one of the ultimate examples of the journey being more important than the destination. Maybe that journey will be on the "Inca Trail", or maybe one of the numerous alternative hikes that are now being opened up. The important thing here is to take your time.

Walking to Machu Picchu makes you properly appreciate it. It makes you consider where you're going, and the historic importance of the way you're getting there. It makes you ponder the feat of the Incans in creating this place. It makes you gape in wonder at the rugged beauty of the area in which they chose to build their citadel.

This is something of a pilgrims' trail. Just being there at the finish line doesn't capture the experience. Getting there does.

Soon it will be easier than ever to get to that finish line. You won't even have to stop in Lima. You won't have to see any more of Peru than an airport terminal, a train carriage and an Incan citadel if you don't want to. You'll be able to jump on a plane in Miami or Atlanta and be walking through Machu Picchu before the day is out.

And of course, everyone in the Sacred Valley will have to watch and listen as you do it. That's the shame of it. The Machu Picchu experience will never be the same again.

Have you been to Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley? Did you walk the Inca Trail? Do you think the proposed new airport will ruin the experience? Or is the improved access a good thing?

Email: b.groundwater@traveller.com.au

Instagram: instagram.com/bengroundwater

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