Peru to save Incas' Lost City from threat of tourists

Peru's National Institute of Culture has released a 10-year master plan that is aimed at conserving the ruins of Machu Picchu, where heavy tourism and nearby development hasendangered the so-called Lost City of the Incas.

With the defeat of the Shining Path terrorist movement in the 1990s, Peru has been "rediscovered" by the international tourism industry and the hordes of visitors are causing erosion and other damage to the archaeological site which extends over some 76,000 acres.

In addition, mummies dating from the Inca period are being exposed to the elements and wild orchids are threatened by the increasing pollution.

Last year, Unesco threatened to place Machu Picchu, Peru's prime tourist destination, on its list of endangered cultural heritage sites. It has been on Unesco's World Heritage List since 1983.

In response, Peru's National Institute of Culture has released a 10-year master plan aimed at conserving Machu Picchu and the series of intricate Inca paths which many tourists use to approach the city.

Among other measures, plans include increasing the entry fee for foreigners from £10 to £15, limiting the daily maximum number of tourists to 2,500, and launching conservation measures to protect other ruins, wildlife and fauna along the Inca Trail.

Located atop a craggy peak in Peru's southern Andes, the 14th century archeological site recovered from oblivion in 1911 by US explorer Hiram Bingham, receives more than 2,500 visitors each day at the peak of Peru's tourist season.

According to the document's executive summary, 9,000 tourists visited the ruins in 1992, but that figure increased to 150,000 by 2002 and is expected to continue rising.

"It is estimated that, in a few short years, demand could increase to 4,000 or 5,000 tourists daily," the document stated.

Some 400 visitors who arrive at the ancient site have taken part in a two-day hike through the Peruvian jungle, following original Inca trails carved into the mountains, and journeying through landscapes of incredible beauty.

Their movements along the Inca roads cause pollution and pose a threat to the region's rich biodiversity, including an estimated 350 varieties of orchids.

Unesco has also criticised Peru for the absence of controled urban planning in nearby Aguas Calientes, a chaotic, ramshackle town and renowned tourist trap where trains unload visitors on to buses to ascend the mountain on the way to Machu Picchu.

The town's precarious location - much of it within the protected sanctuary - has proven dangerous. Last year, a mudslide triggered by heavy rains wiped out several buildings, killing a dozen residents.

The master plan from the Peruvian government calls for a series of incentive programmes "to relocate people who have occupied the protected area".

It also mentioned promoting other Inca ruins and trails in the area, offering "activities for visitors based on Andean rituals related to the cycles of the sun," which was worshipped in Inca culture.

Even before its release, the plan has faced a series of stiff resistance from local residents who oppose the creation of any new government controls to oversee national heritage sites.

Last month, some 1,000 visitors were forced to cancel or postpone trips to the citadel because a train service from Cuzco was suspended due to a protest in the area by locals angry at the proposed controls.