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After hiking Peru's Inca Trail for four days, Sarah Stephens and her travel group awoke early on the morning they reached Machu Picchu. They wanted to see the glow on the Incan ruins at sunrise, a reward for climbing to more than 2,300 metres to get to the ancient city.

It was peaceful, Stephens says - until the crowds came.

"By 10 o'clock, it was, like, tour buses everywhere," the 26-year-old says of her trip in April, 2006. "So you really didn't get the same experience because it's like you're at the CNE. There's a mob of people."

It seems to be the same story everywhere. The United Nations World Tourism Organization announced late last month that global tourism this year has ballooned at a rate 50 per cent higher than the projected 4.3 per cent growth every year until 2017. And with an estimated 878 million international trips this year, nowhere is the surge felt more than in developing countries whose cultural heritage sites, like Machu Picchu, stand nestled away from urban areas and have often been developed too quickly for their own good.

Meanwhile, landing atop this booming $7-trillion industry is today's announcement in Lisbon of the results of the New 7 Wonders of the World contest. The brainchild of Swiss-Canadian Bernard Weber, the campaign was launched in 2000 to generate interest in cultural sites around the world - a kind of replacement for the list of the seven wonders of the ancient world, of which only the Great Pyramid of Giza still exists. Spokeswoman Tia Viering said more than 90 million votes have been cast since voting began last year on a list of 20 finalists.

(As of June 7, before access to voting results on was blocked, the top 10 were the Acropolis in Greece, Chichen Itza in Mexico, the Colosseum, the Eiffel Tower, the Great Wall of China, Machu Picchu, Petra in Jordan, Rio de Janeiro's Statue of Christ the Redeemer, the statues of Easter Island and the Taj Mahal.)

The New 7 Wonders foundation, which makes money through paid votes, merchandise and the rights to broadcast the announcement, has pledged to donate 50 per cent of its profits to restoration and preservation projects.

But experts say the competition will push tourism numbers to the sites even higher, leaving some sites with longer lineups and perhaps speeding up the deterioration of fragile monuments and buildings.

"You start promoting places like this, everybody hears of it, everybody calls their travel agent and says, 'I want to go there,' and you have an influx of too many people, too fast, without good management, without good local involvement and without good local understanding," says Judie Cukier, a professor at the University of Waterloo who studies sustainable tourism.

This is most likely to happen, Cukier adds, in developing countries whose economies rely heavily on tourism.

"When your priority isn't trying to put food on the table, then we can have the luxury of starting to look at other, more esoteric issues, so to speak," Cukier says. "Whereas when the priority is 'I have to feed my family,' sometimes preservation isn't a priority."

For instance, in Siem Reap, Cambodia, tourists have roughed up the Khmer Empire ruins at Angkor - another New 7 Wonders finalist - in the past 10 years. More than three thousand daily visitors push their way up ancient staircases and wear out the stone structures. In the surrounding areas, hotels are polluting local water supplies by dumping sewage into rivers.

"The governments are often very, very keen to pull more people in and then deal with some of the challenges after, instead of being more pro-active," Cukier says.

But tourists are at fault too, she says.

"If tourists start to think about themselves a little bit more as guests, then we might put the destination first and think how we can behave appropriately."

Ultimately, however, governments must manage their cultural sites.

"Uncontrolled tourism is always going to be not sustainable," says Kristin Lamoureux, director of the International Institute of Tourism Studies at George Washington University. "If the local and regional and national governments don't act to protect a destination, there's going to be negative impacts from tourism."

In 2000, the Peruvian government limited the number of daily travellers on the Inca Trail to 500. But conservationists were quick to point out that the record number of daily visitors was 494, so the limit wouldn't prevent the damage being done.

At Machu Picchu, it's still a free-for-all, with more than 4,000 people trampling the site every day. Late last year, the local and regional governments defied a court order and built a new, 80-metre-long bridge about 20 kilometres away to increase the tourist load.

Meanwhile, Erika Harms, the UN Foundation's executive director, who oversees the World Heritage Alliance, says she is working with authorities in Mexico to increase awareness about protecting the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza and encouraging travellers to buy local Mayan products.

"When done properly, tourism is the most benign industry you can have around a World Heritage Site to ensure its long-term preservation," she says. "On the other hand, if you don't do tourism right, you have a Chichen Itza, you have Cairo, you have the Taj Mahal, where you have issues that are seriously impacting the site because of a lack of good planning and good policy being put in place."

Mahmood Poonja, chief explorer of B.C.'s Bestway Tours and Safaris, says there's no easy answer other than to limit the size and number of groups entering a site.

You can go to a site early in the morning, as his travel company does for trips to the Taj Mahal, but other times there isn't much you can do.

"It's a national treasure. And to say that it's closed to somebody or to increase the fees in a way to deter others to go, that I don't think is fair," he says.

But to prevent mass tourism from spiralling out of control, organizations are trying to twist the arms of governments, tourists and industry professionals into improving their sustainability practices.

Late last month, UNESCO's World Heritage Committee booted a World Heritage Site off its list for the first time, removing Oman's Arabian Oryx Sanctuary. In the eyes of the committee, Oman's government wasn't doing enough to protect the sanctuary, home to about 450 rare antelope. The government had decided to decrease the site's size by 90 per cent and hand over part of it to a petroleum company. Without the designation, the government may lose sources of funding.

In February, the UNWTO founded the World Centre of Excellence on Tourist Destinations. The Montreal-based organization is developing a system to objectively measure what makes a tourist destination "excellent," says president André Vallerand.

"Competition is so big and will become bigger and bigger over the years ... and you will have to distinguish yourself. And to distinguish yourself, quality will be part of the way you'll be assessed," he says.

And Sustainable Travel International, in partnership with NSF International, has launched a sustainable tourism certification program for consumers and tourism providers.

"I think what we find with tourism is that it's kind of a double-edged sword," says Brian Mullis, president of Sustainable Travel International. "It ... has negative environmental impacts, but at the same time, as the largest industry in the world, it's perfectly positioned to support environmental conservation, poverty alleviation [and]cultural heritage preservation."

Yesterday, UNWTO Secretary-General Francesco Frangialli said that "while UNWTO has not been involved in [the New 7 Wonders]process, we have followed it closely and well appreciate the promotional value of the exercise for destinations making the short list. At the same time we are acutely aware of the consequences of increased visitation in terms of environmental impact and we would urge the winners to ensure that their sustainability planning and destination management adequately reflects this reality."

At last count, the New 7 Wonders of the World contest had identified the following 10 front-runners. For the vote results, to be announced today in Lisbon, visit globeandmail.com/travel. For another take on the contest, see Mark Kingwell's column on Page F8.

MACHU PICCHU, PERU

The sacred Inca site high on an Andean mountaintop receives thousands of visitors each day.

EIFFEL TOWER, FRANCE

It's impossible to think of Paris without it - even though it's only 118 years old.

COLOSSEUM, ITALY

The great amphitheatre has survived - mostly intact - as empires have risen and fallen.

ACROPOLIS, GREECE

The 'Sacred Rock' of Athens is the site of the Parthenon, temple of the goddess Athena.

CHICHEN ITZA, MEXICO

The pre-Columbian site was once a great Mayan regional centre, but it basically collapsed hundreds of years before the Spaniards came.

EASTER ISLAND, CHILE

The Pacific island is dotted with moai, giant stone statues left by a long-gone Polynesian society.

THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA

The testament to xenophobia failed to keep the Mongols out and now draws tourists from around the world.

STATU OF CHRIST THE REDEEMER, BRAZIL

The 32-metre-tall figure sits high above the bikini-clad inhabitants of Rio de Janeiro.

PETRA, JORDAN

The desert city, which features buildings carved out of rock hillsides, once sat along a vital trade route.

TAJ MAHAL, INDIA

The mausoleum was built by emperor Shah Jahan as a tribute to his favourite wife, Mumtaz.

TRISH McALASTER/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

World of wonders

ANCIENT

The seven wonders of the ancient world is based on ancient Greek writings: The Great Pyramid of Giza, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, the Colossus of Rhodes, the Mausoleum of Maussollos at Halicarnassus, the Lighthouse of Alexandria and the Statue of Zeus at Olympia. None but the Gret Pyramid - taken off the voting list of the New 7 Wonders contest after Egyptian authorities argued that its status as a world wonder could not be questioned - made it past the Middle Ages: arson, earthquakes and Christian zealots did them in.

MODERN

The American Society of Civil Engineers lists these modern wonders: the CN Tower, the Empire State Building, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Channel Tunnel, the panama Canal, the Delta Works in Holland the Itaipu Dam on the Brazil-Paraguay border.

NATURAL

CNN, among others, has compiled a list of the seven natural wonders: the Grand Canyon, the Great Barrier Reef, Victoria Falls, the Northern Lights, Mount Everest, Paricutin Volcano and the Harbour of Rio de Janeiro.

RESPONSIBLE TRAVEL

Some tips from www.responsibletravel.com:

Respect local cultures, traditions and holy places.

Don't buy products made from endangered species, hardwoods or ancient artifacts.

Use water sparingly.

Minimize your waste and dispose of it responsibly.

Ask your tour operator about its policy on responsible tourism and tips for responsible travel at your destination.

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