UNESCO's 890 World Heritage Sites represent humanity's common and precious patrimony. But over-appreciative humans may be more than the sites can sustain.
Since 1972, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has designated 890 World Heritage Sites, places singled out for their unique cultural or natural importance and deemed worthy of protection and recognition. Among them are Stonehenge, the Great Pyramids, Vatican City, the Grand Canyon and hundreds of less well-known locales that only gain fame once they're added to the list.
Yet there's a danger in this designation. Local authorities a newly inscribed World Heritage Site are often unprepared, or even unwilling, to deal with the huge influx of tourists that swiftly follow -- an influx that can severely damage the site itself.
Despite granting its imprimatur and offering expertise and limited funding, UNESCO's World Heritage Center (WHC) ultimately leaves the management, preservation and restoration of a World Heritage Site to its national government. The center, with a staff of about 80 people and an annual budget of $11 million, has little immediate power to make sure that the site is properly protected. All it can do is threaten to delist a mismanaged site.
"At Angkor Wat [in Cambodia], they've built so many hotels they're pumping out the groundwater and the temple complex is starting to sink," notes Jeff Morgan, head of the Global Heritage Fund, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based organization dedicated to private-sector funding of heritage-site preservation.
High in the Peruvian Andes, tourism at the famed ruins of Machu Picchu has skyrocketed from less than 100,000 visitors in 1991 to 400,000 in 2003 and 800,000 in 2008. A gorge-spanning footbridge inaugurated in 2007, much derided by preservationists, only helped increase traffic. "Machu Picchu was never made for lots of people," a Peruvian archaeologist told the Associated Press in 2008. "If we put tourists with boots that are jumping, running, climbing the walls, etcetera, that's the danger."
Damage has already been done. An American ad agency was shooting a beer commercial at the Inca fortress in 2000 when a camera crane toppled over, chipping a piece off a sacred astronomical stone. The crane operator was later sentenced to six years in prison. Yet UNESCO's World Heritage Committee chose last year not to add Machu Picchu to its list of sites in danger of delisting, despite a recommendation to do so by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Instead, the Committee, which both selects new World Heritage Sites and periodically reviews already listed ones, only "voiced grave concern over governance of the property" and vowed to continue to monitor it closely, according to the WHC
's website. (Several requests to UNESCO for comment were unsuccessful.)
Placement on the "danger list" would have served notice on Peru that the site was on probation. Thirty-one sites are currently on the list, most because of threats from natural forces or armed conflict. Only one -- the Galapagos archipelago of Ecuador -- cites excessive tourism, among other reasons. (Angkor Wat was put on the danger list in 1992 due to looting, poor restoration techniques and the presence of land mines in the area. It was returned to the regular list in 2004.) In fact, while 24 sites have come off the danger list thanks to improved conditions and management, only two have ever received the ultimate punishment by being struck from the rolls of World Heritage Sites -- both according to the wishes of local authorities.
The first, the Arabian Oryx Sanctuary in Oman, got the boot in 2007. Discovery of oil led to the government reducing the site's area by 90 percent, leaving just four breeding pairs of the endangered antelope within the reserve. Just this past June, the Dresden Elbe Valley in Germany was delisted after local residents voted to build a new bridge across the river and the federal government's efforts to stop it died in court. Many in Dresden felt that relieving traffic congestion outweighed the prestige of the World Heritage designation.
In most instances, local authorities actively seek World Heritage listing for their country's sites. Each U.N. member state annually nominates its own candidates for inscription by the World Heritage Committee, which has no power itself to put forward candidates.
"Inscription can, though not inevitably, produce a great increase in tourism," says Peter Fowler, a British archaeologist who's worked with the WHC. "But that ... is all too often the main, even only, reason why a government, a regional or local council want the status of World Heritage Site in the first place. "There is often little interest in the 'down' side of such status," Fowler adds, "i.e. looking after a site or landscape to maintain its essential qualities."
Inscription certainly made a difference in the ancient Laotian city of Luang Prabang, largely unknown to the wider world until recently. The former royal capital lost population and importance after the victorious Pathet Lao communist rebels moved the national government to Vientiane in 1975. Twenty years later, the city was listed as a World Heritage Site, and tourists started to arrive -- first young Western backpackers and curious Thais, then more upscale visitors from around the globe.
"The economy of Luang Prabang and the surrounding area is nearly totally dependent on tourism," says France Morin, an art curator and art historian who lived in the town from 2004 to 2008 as director of the third installment of "The Quiet in the Land," a series of long-term community-based collaborative art and education projects. "Local artisans sell their goods at the Handicrafts Market and the Night Market, and they depend heavily on business from tourists," Morin points out. "For example, the Hmong women who sell their embroideries at the Handicrafts Market have designed new products and styles specifically to appeal to the tastes of foreign tourists."
The benefits of increased international attention are mixed. Villagers from the surrounding rural areas have been moving to Luang Prabang for the opportunities, Morin says, but she adds, "Longtime residents have left town as the cost of living has increased. "Some residents, for example, have leased their homes to foreigners for 30-year terms, have moved outside of town, and have subsequently regretted their decision," she adds. "They miss their old life, where they were part of a community centered on the local monastery."
In fact, Morin argues, the influx of tourists may be threatening the social and religious fabric of Luang Prabang. "Imagine the impact of hundreds of thousands of visitors on a small town, whose residents live in small neighborhood-like villages, each of which revolves around the local monastery," she says. "Suddenly the monasteries are invaded with tourists all day long, the monks and novices talk to them to practice their English, girls and women are not informed that they cannot touch the monks and novices in Theravada Buddhism."
Yet Morin wasn't sure whether the local authorities could have known how to handle the wave of tourists better. "In a poor country like Laos, local authorities typically see tourism as a means of economic development and therefore beneficial for the people," she replied. "But often, they have little knowledge of the adverse effects of tourism."
Because of experiences such as those of Luang Prabang, Machu Picchu and Angkor Wat, UNESCO now requires that a tourism-management plan be part of every nomination for World Heritage Site designation. "An influx [of visitors] doesn't really mean bad tourism or damage to the site if it's managed correctly," says Kate Dodson, deputy director of sustainable development at the World Heritage Alliance, itself a branch of the U.N. Foundation, a non-profit organization that promotes the U.N. and its efforts in the United States.
"It's true that some sites are being inscribed primarily to draw tourism for the benefit of the local economy, but that's fine as long as it's got a really good tourism plan," she adds. In fact, Morin points out, the WHC took action, of a subtle sort, in Luang Prabang. "UNESCO actually threatened to put Luang Prabang on the list of endangered sites -- an act that motivated the government to wake up and take measures to protect its heritage more diligently."
But to Jeff Morgan of the Global Heritage Fund, the WHC's tourist-management requirement is too little, too late. "Sure, UNESCO demands a management plan now -- for new nominees -- but what about the other 890 sites that have already been listed?" Morgan asks. "I'd bet that if you really applied the criteria that UNESCO says it demands from each site, 80 percent of them would fail."
Nevertheless, all agree that one key component of effective tourist management and overall preservation is getting the local community involved. "In [Mexico's] Mayan Riviera, local hotel staff work with the indigenous Mayan community to stimulate handicraft production, with the result that local artisans sell in hotels," says Dodson.
For Morgan, that means giving the local power structure a stake in preservation and protection. "There's probably 20 guys in Cambodia, for example, who run everything. You need to get two or three of them on board with you," he says. "We've done that with [the pre-Mayan site of] El Mirador in Guatemala -- we got the locals to put in $3 million of their own money."
France Morin stresses laying out to the locals just what massive tourism can entail. "The answer is education," she says. "When people become more educated, they better understand how to deal with their own culture and the 'other,' how to protect their cultural heritage, and how to benefit from this resource without sacrificing it. "You cannot blame the local authorities for wanting to join the 21st century," Morin adds. "It's just that in many cases they are poorly equipped to do so and to understand the complexities of it all."
Dodson also says World Heritage Sites need to charge admission fees, both to offset the costs of maintenance and to control the number of visitors. "In Tanzania's national parks, an international traveler pays $50 as an entrance fee, while locals have no fee or little fees," Dodson points out. "That way they can pay for rangers and do species monitoring." To Morgan, that's a false solution. He points out that many sites have been charging admission for decades, without any improvement in conditions for the sites or the local inhabitants. "What they do need is a bed tax for hotels, a restaurant tax, the way they do in New York City," he says. "And that money can't go into the Finance Ministry's coffers -- it's got to go straight to the site itself."
Holly Evarts of the World Monuments Fund, a New York-based non-profit organization dedicated to preserving cultural heritage and historic architecture, thinks solutions lie at both the logistical and governmental levels. "Many of the tourism problems at sites have to do with the need for clearer monitoring of site capacity along with the need to control numbers of tourists through strategies such as timed-ticket entry, reservation systems, varied routes, etc.," she says. "The question is how to tie these cultural and natural resources more closely to overall regional development planning, so that before a place receives World Heritage designation, its local or regional government can make sure that the local municipalities have adequate tools at their disposal to make the tourism experience pleasant and enriching, as well as sustainable."
Morgan thinks the World Heritage Center needs to be overhauled and repurposed. But he doesn't want it weakened -- instead, he'd like to see it given executive power and large-scale financing, both public and private, so that it can directly administer World Heritage Sites itself. "We need something like the U.N. High Commission for Refugees -- a well-run, well-funded outfit that has clout and teeth," Morgan says. "When there's a refugee crisis in Afghanistan, the UNHCR doesn't hand off the problem to the government of Afghanistan -- it goes in and does the job itself."
"UNESCO needs accountability and executive ability," he adds. "That's the only way it's going to get private donors for World Heritage Sites. If you were a big corporation or a big private foundation, would you invest in the U.N.? Of course not. Your money would just disappear into the bureaucracy."
Or, as Morgan puts it more bluntly: "If you're going to drink, drink responsibly. If you're going to list a World Heritage Site, take responsibility for managing it."