An established tourist destination, Machu Picchu is much more than just a place to visit. Before being coveted by tourists from all over the world, the archaeological site served as shelter for the Inca Empire and for hundreds of years was home to the Quechua people. Located at an altitude of 2400 meters, in the valley of the Urubamba River, the city was only introduced to the world after the expedition by American professor Hiram Bingham, in 1911.

The historic sanctuary was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983 and became one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World in 2007. Machu Picchu, which means «old mountain», brings together perfect doses of nature, culture, and mysticism.

The natural wealth, however, still needs more protection, as it is one of the most threatened ecosystems on the planet. The loss of cloud forests brings risks of global impact, because it causes serious environmental changes, such as the degradation of habitats and of the so-called ecosystem services, like, for example, the capacity of the forests to absorb carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases.

And here the concerns about facing the climate crisis return. The United Nations (UN) indicates, as of 2019, that the climate emergency period we are experiencing will have increasingly visible impacts on all social and economic segments, including tourism. Therefore, it is still worth pointing out that climate change is not a natural phenomenon but the result of decades of greenhouse gas emissions that accumulate in the atmosphere and alter the climate balance worldwide.

And tourism is also responsible for a large part of these emissions. And that is why a challenging journey towards carbon neutrality has begun in Machu Picchu.

The world’s first carbon-neutral wonder

Before I tell you about the path to carbon neutrality, we need to talk about the impact that the covid-19 pandemic has brought to tourism. Travel agencies, tour operators, transportation, tour guides, hotels, natural and cultural assets, and many other tourism players around the world are trying to survive after several months with massively lower turnover.

Seeing the scenario in perspective, the World Tourism Organization believes that rebuilding the tourism sector also involves a new business model, in which climate action plays a central role.

Peru, has taken on the challenge of decoupling CO2 emissions from the post-pandemic tourism recovery. The Green Initiative points out that about 5% of the country’s CO2 emissions are related to tourism, which is one of its main economic engines.

«This finding puts two issues into perspective. On the one hand, the responsibility of the Peruvian tourism industry to implement measures to improve its climate efficiency, and on the other, the opportunity to enhance these efforts by positioning Peru as a carbon-neutral tourism destination,» said Tatiana Visnevsky, director of institutional relations at GreenInitiative.

The country is now acting intensively and comprehensively to mitigate climate change, adopting three levels of action:

– The first level is that of the destinations, which commit to contain their carbon emissions and achieve carbon neutrality, following the guidelines of the Paris Agreement

– The second level is that of companies, working with professional associations, business entities and value chains, seeking to engage in climate reduction and mitigation actions

– The third level is that of the tourists, who through mitigation actions can offset the carbon emissions of their trips and in this way connect with actions to restore ecosystems and recover biodiversity.

These three levels of action are part of the vision that One Planet has promoted on behalf of people, planet, and prosperity.

In October 2020 a strategic alliance brought together several key players to ensure that the future of Machu Picchu is carbon neutral and that the Sanctuary is the world’s first Wonder and the first certified and recognized tourist destination as such. The Machu Picchu District Municipality, the Inkaterra sustainable tourism network, AJE Group and the National Service of Protected Natural Areas (SERNANP), joined by allies from the Peruvian Export and Tourism Promotion Commission (PROMPERU), the Ministry of Environment, the Peruvian Society of Adventure and Ecotourism Companies (APTAE) underpin the initiative.

For the certification, a collaboration was established with the certification company GreenInitiative. Machu Picchu is competing with Palao (Pacific Islands) and the city of Valencia to be the first tourist destination in the world with the recognition.

To make this possible, the national tourism industry has been launching a referential work at a global level. To date, the two main associations have committed to promoting carbon neutrality among their more than 200 members, and the result is exemplary. There are more than 40 companies certified as carbon neutral, including leading companies such as Inkaterra, LimaTours, CondorTravel, DharmaTour, Vamos Expeditions, and Expediciones Apumayo, among others.

GreenInitiative’s «Carbon Neutral» certification is based on multilateral mechanisms, allowing clients to meet the highest international standards and therefore gain international recognition of their efforts, and to have information for the operational management of their carbon emissions.

«We have a great challenge to overcome and we must all understand that no matter how big the climate action taken, it is relevant, whether for the direct impact or for the educational effect on employees and customers. We need to believe that changing course and protecting our planet is absolutely possible, and we will do it,» Tatiana said.

Machu Picchu is expected to meet the requirements necessary to achieve carbon neutral certification by the end of June 2021. This commitment aims to reduce carbon emissions by 45% by 2030, and achieve zero net emissions, i.e. carbon neutrality, by 2050, in accordance with the Paris Agreement guidelines.

Alliance for the future

«The world needs a change of course and among the set of actions that we must take as humanity to effect this change, climate action stands out,» Tatiana pondered, while observing the importance of initiatives such as the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy and the One Planet Programs of the World Tourism Organization and Climate Neutral Now, of the UN Climate. «These are initiatives that drive this transformation, generating standards that allow us to standardize the work and integrate the various industries and segments,» she concluded.

The alliance in Machu Picchu was triggered with the support of these initiatives and the mobilization of several institutions. In the wake of a waste management crisis due to which UNESCO considered the inclusion of the Citadel on the List of World Heritage in Danger in 2016, the collective effort prevailed.

The first action was the donation by Inkaterra and AJE of a compactor to the municipality for the daily processing of seven tons of plastic waste, which reduced the volume of plastic by 70% and consequently plastic pollution. The success of this initiative was followed by the Oil to Biodiesel and Glycerin Transformation Plant, inaugurated in 2018 at the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel, which prevented more than a thousand gallons of vegetable oil waste from reaching the Vilcanota River, as well as generating job opportunities.

The latest project is an innovative technology capable of processing eight tons of organic waste by pyrolysis (chemical decomposition at high temperatures in the absence of oxygen, without carbon emission). This generates a natural fertilizer that will be used in the reforestation of the cloud forest, with the planting of one million trees that should help to restore biodiversity and prevent natural disasters in the country.

Peru, as a destination, enjoys the privilege of possessing this cultural and natural heritage of humanity, which carries with it the great responsibility of safeguarding it for future generations. This alliance committed to the decarbonization of Machu Picchu is an example of this commitment to climate action by destination Peru. For AJE Group Director Jorge Lopez-Doriga, the joint effort is key to achieving the goal Machu Picchu has set itself and to overcoming the crisis caused by the covid-19 pandemic. «A circular economy is essential for the tourism sector, to preserve and protect destinations and to recover from the current crisis in a responsible manner,» Lopez-Doriga pondered.

This is a success story about the goals that can be achieved when the public and private sectors work together. With the support of the local community, this is the first destination in Latin America to have achieved a circular economy through sustainable waste management.

If all goes well, as is happening, Peru will have the first Wonder of the Modern World committed to carbon neutrality and certified as such, mitigating its carbon footprint and offering all its visitors a climate experience compatible with the great challenges of the tourism sector and the planet.