The pandemic is spurring changes to Machu Picchu, some of which may last long after the global outbreak ends.
The 15th century Incan archeological site has been a poster child for over-tourism for years, with visitors reporting trips to the site's Citadel being ruined by crowds.
The pandemic may have helped that. New rules now govern how many people are allowed in and what they can do once inside, said Jose Miguel Bastante, director of Peru's National Archaeological Park of Machupicchu, in an interview with CNBC.
Like other monuments around the world, Machu Picchu was closed to visitors in March 2020.
It reopened in November, but with new safety protocols, such as mandatory mask-wearing, restrictions on group sizes — no more than nine people, including a guide — and a requirement that groups stay at least 20 meters (66 feet) apart.
In the past five years, Machu Picchu received an average of up to 4,800 visitors a day. Basically, anyone who arrived was allowed to enter, according to a 2017 report by UNESCO's World Heritage Committee.
Machu Picchu's ticketing website sold 3,700 tickets a day, but that didn't include the 500 daily visitors who hiked to the site, according to the report. Furthermore, the report said additional tickets were being sold by tour companies and at the site itself.
In July 2020, Peruvian authorities capped the number of site visitors to Machu Picchu at 2,244 a day. But even that change did not tackle the problem of people preferring to visit at the same time of day, especially at sunrise.
"Everybody wanted to be the first in Machu Picchu," he said. "We open at six in the morning, and there were hundreds and hundreds of people wanting to enter, with queues that will go on for two hours."
It was as if the visitors believed that "the sun will rise super early and illuminate Machu Picchu like in a movie," he said, adding that the best time to visit is actually in the afternoon after the morning mist has cleared.
Before the site reopened, it changed how it issues tickets. Formerly, it issued tickets for half-day blocks — either morning or afternoon. Now, visitors buy tickets for specific hours.
"If you have a ticket for 10 a.m., you have to enter between 10 and 11 a.m.," said Bastante, who added that if travelers show up outside of their timeframe, they "cannot enter."
The new rules have led to emotional reactions from tourists, some of whom may have crossed continents to see Peru's most famous tourist site.
"We had people outside the site complaining and crying," Bastante said in an interview with The Getty Conservation Institute published this spring. "But we cannot go against our established capacity."
Visitors spend slightly less time at the site now too. The older half-day rule let them explore the site for four hours, though it wasn't strictly enforced. Now they get to stay as long as it takes for them to finish their chosen route, which can be between one and three hours, said Bastante.
The hourly quota system is here to stay — even after the pandemic eases — because it has made crowd management more efficient, said Bastante.
'Not a last-minute destination anymore'
Planning a trip to Machu Picchu has changed too. Visitors can no longer expect to buy tickets on the spot, or even a few days prior, because of how quickly they sell out.
Bastante recommends booking tickets one or two months in advance. He also suggests booking tickets before booking flights and hotels, adding that Machu Picchu "is not a last-minute destination anymore."
"There have been people that arrive to Cusco, and then they realize that … there are no tickets available for Machu Picchu," he said, referring to the Peruvian city located some 50 miles from the site.
Authorities launched a new ticketing website in 2018. It lets travelers see how many empty slots are available for each hour. Most dates in the next two months are already full, but tickets were more readily available after that.
Fewer trekkers on the Inca Trail
Authorities have also restricted the number of trekkers on the Inca Trail. The four-day hike from Cusco to the entrance of Machu Picchu is a popular way to get to the site, though most visitors travel via rail on a 3.5-hour train ride.
The Inca Trail can now only accommodate half of its previous limit, or about 250 hikers per day, said Fernando Rodriguez, operations manager for Intrepid Travel in Peru.
Once porters are accounted for, there are 100-110 permits per day left for visitors, he said.
"We recommend that travelers book at least a few months in advance," he said, "or longer if possible."
The Inca Trail faces similar Covid-19 restrictions as Machu Picchu — group sizes of eight plus a guide, mandatory mask-wearing when social distancing is not possible — even while hiking and at campsites, Rodriguez said.
In 2019, four circuits, or fixed routes, were put in place at the Citadel for better crowd control and site management. Before that, those routes were merely recommended, and people could backtrack and explore more than one. Now, none of that is allowed.
The circuits disperse the crowds and keep people moving, explained Bastante. The predetermined paths mean that tourists can't explore the entire site in one visit either.
Bastante recommends touring an upper circuit on the first day, staying overnight in Cusco and returning the next day to visit one of the lower routes.
More tourists in the future?
Despite the new rules limiting the number of tourists, site authorities are planning to increase capacity to Machu Picchu in the future.
A new visitor center, which is scheduled to begin construction this year, might allow some 6,000 daily visitors to tour Machu Picchu, said Bastante.
The visitor center will be the starting point for new routes, and it will house a new museum and botanical gardens, all of which will let the site more than double its current capacity, according to Bastante.
The center will have information on how visitors are "supposed to behave in a sacred space," he said.
"Tourists … don't internalize that this was a sacred place for the Incas and for the Peruvians," he said. "They should behave the same way they behave in a sacred place of any other religion in the world."
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