Sunday marked the 100th Anniver­sary of the dis­covery of Machu Picchu — the ancient Incan city in Peru — by Amer­ican archae­ol­o­gist and his­tory pro­fessor Hiram Bingham. Yanet Monica Canavan, the director of Northeastern’s Dia­logue of Civ­i­liza­tions pro­grams in Peru, and a native of the country, talks about the his­tor­ical sig­nif­i­cance of the dis­covery of Machu Picchu, its impact on the economy in Peru and how mod­ern­iza­tion of the site may be causing irre­versible damage.

Why was the dis­covery of Machu Picchu in 1911 a sig­nif­i­cant moment in history?

It was the first oppor­tu­nity that our world had to learn about this mys­te­rious Incan royal city located high among the moun­tains. In the 16th cen­tury, Spanish invaders destroyed most of the Incans’ civ­i­liza­tion, but never found Machu Picchu during their con­quest in Peru. For that, it is highly sig­nif­i­cant as a rel­a­tively intact cul­tural site, which has helped it garner atten­tion from his­to­rians, aca­d­e­mics and tourists across the globe. The dis­covery not only changed the per­cep­tion of the world; it also changed the way people thought about the world and increased their under­standing of the sig­nif­i­cance of ancient civilizations.

On a more per­sonal note, it has pro­vided incred­ibly enriching expe­ri­ences for North­eastern stu­dents par­tic­i­pating in the Peru Dia­logue of Civ­i­liza­tions programs.

How impor­tant is Machu Picchu to Peru’s tourism industry and overall economy?

Peru’s economy has grown in the last few years due largely to tourism — the country’s third-​​largest industry. Machu Picchu is the most pop­ular des­ti­na­tion in Peru and since 1983, when it was named a UNESCO World Her­itage Site, there has been an enor­mous increase in tourism, with as many as 2,000 people vis­iting the site daily.

Machu Picchu con­tributes to both the tourism industry and the entire economy by cre­ating jobs and busi­ness oppor­tu­ni­ties and bringing new money into the country. The gov­ern­ment uses the largest por­tion of rev­enue from Machu Picchu tourism for devel­op­ment projects.

In the 90’s, the Peru­vian gov­ern­ment approved the con­struc­tion of a cable car, luxury hotel, bou­tiques and restau­rants to pro­vide Machu Picchu tourists with greater access and com­fort. This was met with protest by locals and UNESCO, which is con­sid­ering adding it to the List of World Her­itage Sites in Danger. Should Peru work to pre­serve rather than mod­ernize the site for tourist purposes?

This topic is very con­tro­ver­sial, as tourism is crit­ical to Peru’s economy. While increased tourism brings money to the country, it is also dam­ages the his­toric ruins — foot traffic has caused slow but notice­able ero­sion to the site. Pol­lu­tion has increased because of tourists who camp and litter along the Inca Trail. The nearby city of Aguas Calientes, once tran­quil, is now a full of filth and noisy hotels that were built to accom­mo­date tourists. Many nat­ural species are also disappearing.

On the other hand, mod­ern­izing the site means bringing in out­side dol­lars to sup­port the com­mu­nity with new facil­i­ties and ser­vices. The rail­ways ben­efit both locals and tourists. These endeavors also encourage Peru­vian national pride and civic involve­ment, and the com­mu­nity is proud of its Incan her­itage. Peru­vians should aim to bal­ance the advan­tages and dis­ad­van­tages that tourism produces.