Peru to tweak Machu Picchu visits, promote its south

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PERU-MPICCHUWhat's old is new again. That was the message heard loud and clear from tourism officials at last month's Peru Travel Mart, the annual confab showcasing the tourism offerings found across this archaeologically rich Andean destination.

While the event in Lima, attended by 55 sellers and 118 buyers, featured the buying and selling central to such events, officials also used the occasion to outline a series of developments in Peru's tourism infrastructure, most notably a plan to revamp the way visitors experience Machu Picchu.

"Our cultural patrimony is a nonrenewable resource, a treasure," said Cecilia Bakula, director of Peru's National Institute of Culture. "Forty percent of visitors to Peru are attracted here by our cultural richness."

That richness, however, suffered a devastating blow on Aug. 15, 2007, when an 8.0-magnitude earthquake struck the southern city of Pisco, killing more than 500 people and displacing thousands more.

Officials have spent much of the last two years repairing the surrounding region, whose dramatic desert landscape is a popular destination for locals and a potentially rich draw for international visitors. The region is also home to famous and enigmatic desert drawings known as the Nazca Lines.

"We want to convert the destination of southern Peru from one that is primarily for Peruvians to one that attracts foreign visitors," said Mercedes Araoz, Peru's minister for foreign trade and tourism.

To that end, officials outlined a series of infrastructure improvements aimed at enhancing the visitor experience, including a sleek new archaeological museum under construction in hard-hit Paracas.

"The old museum was destroyed by the earthquake," said Bakula, noting that the new and improved structure will, among other things, feature separate bathroom facilities for Peru's plentiful school groups.

Bakula also highlighted museum construction under way in Pachacamac and Cao, along with facilities improvements at archaeological sites in Chavin and Mateo Salado. It's all part of an effort to improve and promote cultural attractions just now emerging on the global tourism radar.

"Some of these archaeological sites were unknown 20 years ago," said Mara Seminario, who directs promotion for the government's tourism arm, PromPeru. "We have new possibilities now."

Change at Machu Picchu

PERU-PiscoChurchPTM also offered operators a glimpse of proposed changes to the way visitors access Peru's crown jewel, Machu Picchu. Bakula previewed plans, not yet formally announced, to minimize congestion at the nation's top tourist site by staggering entry times and establishing walking paths.

Unlike the current system, in which admission grants all-day access to the area, visitors would purchase time-limited tickets (a two-hour window has been discussed) with the option of paying for the right to stay longer. Night visits, which are now banned, would be introduced.

Bakula added that ticket presales on the Internet and expansion of the park's single point of entry and exit are being studied.

"Right now, it can be a jumble starting in June, when high season begins," she said.

The overall aim, said Bakula, is to reduce the environmental impact of tourism to Machu Picchu while improving visitors' overall experience. That's a goal that sits well with Carrie McDougall, a first-time visitor to Peru and president of the Vermont-based operator Cultural Crossroads.

"What I found interesting is that they are taking a look at sites that are heavily trafficked and saying, 'Are we doing the best thing to protect that ... place?'" said McDougall. "They're rethinking the ways they do exits, entrances, safety -- not only for the people but for the landscape."

PromPeru had invited McDougall to PTM hoping that she would be impressed enough to begin offering her culturally focused group tours in the Andean nation.

"There's the archaeology, the history, the culture," said McDougall. "No question, I'm definitely going to start running trips there." Visit www.peru.info.

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