The iconic 15th century Inca citadel Machu Picchu attracts more than a million visitors a year to the cloud forests of southern Peru. Sixty kilometres away, another mountaintop refuge built by the Incas 50 years later has languished in obscurity, with barely a dozen visitors a day. The government wants that to change.
The South American nation plans to open up Choquequirao -- known as Machu Picchu's Sacred Sister -- to the tourist mainstream with roads connecting the site to its world famous predecessor, and a cable car to elevate visitors to 3000 metre above sea level, said Roger Valencia, deputy tourism minister. The excursion is currently a five-day, 60-kilometre round trip on foot, traversing a canyon and crossing the raging Apurimac River.
"The hike is exceptionally beautiful, but it's tough," said Valencia, a former tour operator and guide who's made the trek more than 20 times. "We'll put in the roads and the cable cars to make it accessible."
President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski is promoting Choquequirao as part of his goal to double the number of tourist arrivals to 7 million by 2021 to ease the economy's dependence on industries such as mining, which creates few jobs. Tourism accounts for 3.9 per cent of Peru's gross domestic product, the highest contribution among major Latin American economies after Mexico, and is expected to rise to 4.6 percent in the next decade, according to the London-based World Travel & Tourism Council.
Kuczynski flew over Choquequirao on Aug. 31 and pledged 200 million soles ($91 million) of investment to develop infrastructure for accessing the citadel, which has yet to be fully excavated. The investments starting next year will allow visitors to explore its giant stairway, terraces, plazas, fountains and temples in a day trip from Machu Picchu.
Choquequirao -- cradle of gold in the Quechua language -- was built by the Incas around the turn of the 16th century, before they fled into the jungle beyond Cuzco to escape the invading Spanish Conquistadors. It was visited by American explorer Hiram Bingham in 1910, a year before he introduced the more spectacular and accessible Machu Picchu to the outside world.
Once the cable car service starts, the government sees Choquequirao receiving about 150,000 visitors in the first year, up from 5800 a year now. In the medium term, it forecasts at least half a million visitors a year.
The government is already cashing in on other less known archaeological sites. Peru inaugurated its first cable car system earlier this year to ferry tourists to Kuelap, a fortress city built in the forests of north Peru. It expects more than 100,000 visitors there in 2017, twice last year's total.
Peru, cradle of the first civilisation in the Americas 5000 years ago, is leveraging its archaeological heritage to boost its appeal to tourists starting to take notice of a country that was for years off limits because of guerrilla warfare and economic collapse. Seven people were killed during the bombing of a tourist train bound for Machu Picchu in 1986.
The Andean nation has doubled the number of tourists arrivals in the last decade to 3.7 million last year after it signed free-trade agreements, attracted international hotel chains and upgraded infrastructure.
Valencia said Choquequirao will be the final destination in a tourist circuit traversing Cuzco, which was the political center of the Inca Empire that reached beyond Quito in the north and to Santiago in the south.
The government is also designing new walking routes to Machu Picchu and plans to allow visitors to explore more of the mountain after which the citadel was named. The complex received 1.4 million visitors last year and could potentially receive 50 percent more per year by optimising management of the site, according to a study by Peru's Culture Ministry.
Peru's tourist industry generated $11.1 billion in sales last year and earnings from foreign visitors are expected to grow 8.5 per cent a year over the next decade, the fastest pace after Egypt, according to WTTC forecasts.
Squeezing more dollars out of Machu Picchu isn't without its risks, not least being the threat increased tourist traffic would pose to the site. The United Nations, which declared it a World Heritage site in 1983, this year warned Peru that increasing visitor capacity may not be compatible with the site's conservation needs and heritage value.
A fire at an archaeological complex in northwest Peru on Nov. 12 highlights another threat to the country's cultural heritage -- the government isn't investing enough to preserve its lesser known sites. The fire started by workers burning nearby sugarcane engulfed the Ventarron complex, which dates from about 2000 years B.C., destroying what local archaeologists say is the oldest mural in the Americas, Peru's state news agency Andina reported Monday.
The government is taking steps to squeeze as much additional capacity from existing airports in the next five years to meet its goals for doubling tourist arrivals, after delays to airport projects in Lima and Chinchero. That will require changes including allowing international flights direct to Cuzco and other local airports, to ease congestion in Lima, Valencia said.
The WTTC doesn't see Peru getting close to 7 million tourists until 2027, six years later than Kuczynski is targeting.
That is overly pessimistic, Valencia says. After all, the country has a treasure trove of historical and scenic sites to attract visitors.