Vanishing point

How tourism—yes, tourism—can help preserve endangered cultural heritage sites and boost local economies.
Andrew Tolve | September 2011 Issue
The developing world is a tough place to preach conservation. A site with priceless cultural value in the minds of archeologists often doesn’t stand a chance against the latest factory or housing development, let alone looting, pollution or neglect.
Take the ancient “water towns” in the Yangtze River Delta south of Shanghai, China. Many of these towns, named for their elaborate networks of waterways where glassy green rivers flow past homes as old as the Ming Dynasty of the 14th to 17th centuries, were routinely bulldozed to make way for more factories, more power stations, more economic growth. That is, until conservationists proposed a somewhat unlikely solution: tourism.
Tourism is typically cited as one of the primary dangers to fragile cultural heritage sites, not one of their saviors. But in 2001, six water towns were renovated by the Ruan Yisan Heritage Foundation and marketed as tourist destinations. By 2003, millions of Chinese and foreign visitors were floating through their waterways annually. The average local salary ballooned from $52 to $195 a year. Conservation combined with tourism replaced unchecked development as the preferred mode of economic growth.
Opportunities like this abound throughout the developing world. While some conservationists believe cultural heritage sites should be roped off and protected from tourism, others are convinced that responsibly exploiting the economic -potential of these precious places will not only preserve the sites for future generations but improve the local communities. “Global heritage sites are mankind’s history, a link to the past, our common humanity and the basis for scientific and aesthetic inquiry,” says Ian Hodder, a professor of cultural and social anthropology at Stanford University and a co-founder of the Global Heritage Fund (GHF), an international conservancy that protects, preserves and sustains heritage sites in developing countries. “But they’re also sources of national identity and important economic assets for sustainable -development.”
The Global Heritage Fund’s report, “Saving Our Vanishing Heritage,” details the damage and neglect visited upon hundreds of cultural heritage sites during the past 10 years—and the $100-billion-a-year economic opportunity that preserving these sites represents for local communities. The report identifies 20 specific sites “on the verge” of irreparable loss and destruction but capable of becoming economic engines for development if they are protected and preserved.
These borderline sites include Yemen’s ancient city of Zabid, once a showcase for the region’s rich architectural heritage; Kenya’s Lamu, East Africa’s oldest Swahili historic town; and Haiti’s Jacmel, one of the world’s last historic cities of steel and iron architecture. Jeff Morgan, executive director of GHF, says sites like these and many others are under threat from irresponsible development. “It would be like using Mount Rushmore for a firing range for the military or turning Monticello into a Malaysian casino complex,” he says. Sustainable tourism, he contends, is one of the best ways to keep these sites vital and protected while providing locals with economic incentives to become stewards of their own heritage.
Such a stance has its opponents. Some contend that the tourism model isn’t viable for countries lacking an established tourism base or infrastructure. Others argue that fostering tourism in countries plagued by corruption and inefficiencies will further spoil sites rather than preserve them. Angkor Wat in Cambodia is a classic cautionary tale. The site’s ancient architecture has been overrun by a carnival of local vendors, tour guides and small-scale looters. The water towns in the Yangtze River Delta are overcrowded and clogged with street vendors, too.
“It’s difficult in many countries where people are desperately poor,” says Tim Williams, senior lecturer at the Institute of Archeology at University College London and a member of the Saving Our Vanishing Heritage editorial committee. “It’s not easy to say to somebody that they’ve got an economic resource on their doorstep and they’re not allowed to touch it.”
Williams recalls visiting Ephesus—the second largest city in the Roman Empire and the site of the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World—and meeting a man with a machete offering chunks of the ruins for a small fee to passersby. But Williams says people like this are not reason enough to reject tourism altogether. Tourism can be a motivating force for preservation and economic development. However, it’s critical that it be accompanied by educational campaigns that strike a balance between short-term economic benefit and long-term cultural enrichment. “You have to think about other types of models and how to build political and social support for conservation, management and maintenance,” Williams says.
In the “Saving Our Vanishing Heritage” report, the Global Heritage Fund exhorts conservationists to adopt new models that better define the economic and cultural value of heritage—models like GHF’s own Preservation by Design, a methodology that assists site leaders in developing a multi-year process of master planning, scientific conservation, community training and in-country partnerships for sustainability. “Overuse without reinvestment and investments in management equals disaster,” says Morgan.
As urbanization and industrialization wipe out cultural heritage sites at an ever-accelerating pace, tourists can become ambas-sadors for—and financial backers of—conservation. That way, tourism’s light ecological footprint could help local communities clear a path toward sustainable development.
Andrew Tolve has learned a lot and helped locals more than once while he was exploring Ait Benhaddou, a cultural heritage site in Morocco.
Photo of Lamu, Kenya by Cessna 206 via Flickr.

Solution News Source

Vanishing point

How tourism—yes, tourism—can help preserve endangered cultural heritage sites and boost local economies.
Andrew Tolve | September 2011 Issue
The developing world is a tough place to preach conservation. A site with priceless cultural value in the minds of archeologists often doesn’t stand a chance against the latest factory or housing development, let alone looting, pollution or neglect.
Take the ancient “water towns” in the Yangtze River Delta south of Shanghai, China. Many of these towns, named for their elaborate networks of waterways where glassy green rivers flow past homes as old as the Ming Dynasty of the 14th to 17th centuries, were routinely bulldozed to make way for more factories, more power stations, more economic growth. That is, until conservationists proposed a somewhat unlikely solution: tourism.
Tourism is typically cited as one of the primary dangers to fragile cultural heritage sites, not one of their saviors. But in 2001, six water towns were renovated by the Ruan Yisan Heritage Foundation and marketed as tourist destinations. By 2003, millions of Chinese and foreign visitors were floating through their waterways annually. The average local salary ballooned from $52 to $195 a year. Conservation combined with tourism replaced unchecked development as the preferred mode of economic growth.
Opportunities like this abound throughout the developing world. While some conservationists believe cultural heritage sites should be roped off and protected from tourism, others are convinced that responsibly exploiting the economic -potential of these precious places will not only preserve the sites for future generations but improve the local communities. “Global heritage sites are mankind’s history, a link to the past, our common humanity and the basis for scientific and aesthetic inquiry,” says Ian Hodder, a professor of cultural and social anthropology at Stanford University and a co-founder of the Global Heritage Fund (GHF), an international conservancy that protects, preserves and sustains heritage sites in developing countries. “But they’re also sources of national identity and important economic assets for sustainable -development.”
The Global Heritage Fund’s report, “Saving Our Vanishing Heritage,” details the damage and neglect visited upon hundreds of cultural heritage sites during the past 10 years—and the $100-billion-a-year economic opportunity that preserving these sites represents for local communities. The report identifies 20 specific sites “on the verge” of irreparable loss and destruction but capable of becoming economic engines for development if they are protected and preserved.
These borderline sites include Yemen’s ancient city of Zabid, once a showcase for the region’s rich architectural heritage; Kenya’s Lamu, East Africa’s oldest Swahili historic town; and Haiti’s Jacmel, one of the world’s last historic cities of steel and iron architecture. Jeff Morgan, executive director of GHF, says sites like these and many others are under threat from irresponsible development. “It would be like using Mount Rushmore for a firing range for the military or turning Monticello into a Malaysian casino complex,” he says. Sustainable tourism, he contends, is one of the best ways to keep these sites vital and protected while providing locals with economic incentives to become stewards of their own heritage.
Such a stance has its opponents. Some contend that the tourism model isn’t viable for countries lacking an established tourism base or infrastructure. Others argue that fostering tourism in countries plagued by corruption and inefficiencies will further spoil sites rather than preserve them. Angkor Wat in Cambodia is a classic cautionary tale. The site’s ancient architecture has been overrun by a carnival of local vendors, tour guides and small-scale looters. The water towns in the Yangtze River Delta are overcrowded and clogged with street vendors, too.
“It’s difficult in many countries where people are desperately poor,” says Tim Williams, senior lecturer at the Institute of Archeology at University College London and a member of the Saving Our Vanishing Heritage editorial committee. “It’s not easy to say to somebody that they’ve got an economic resource on their doorstep and they’re not allowed to touch it.”
Williams recalls visiting Ephesus—the second largest city in the Roman Empire and the site of the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World—and meeting a man with a machete offering chunks of the ruins for a small fee to passersby. But Williams says people like this are not reason enough to reject tourism altogether. Tourism can be a motivating force for preservation and economic development. However, it’s critical that it be accompanied by educational campaigns that strike a balance between short-term economic benefit and long-term cultural enrichment. “You have to think about other types of models and how to build political and social support for conservation, management and maintenance,” Williams says.
In the “Saving Our Vanishing Heritage” report, the Global Heritage Fund exhorts conservationists to adopt new models that better define the economic and cultural value of heritage—models like GHF’s own Preservation by Design, a methodology that assists site leaders in developing a multi-year process of master planning, scientific conservation, community training and in-country partnerships for sustainability. “Overuse without reinvestment and investments in management equals disaster,” says Morgan.
As urbanization and industrialization wipe out cultural heritage sites at an ever-accelerating pace, tourists can become ambas-sadors for—and financial backers of—conservation. That way, tourism’s light ecological footprint could help local communities clear a path toward sustainable development.
Andrew Tolve has learned a lot and helped locals more than once while he was exploring Ait Benhaddou, a cultural heritage site in Morocco.
Photo of Lamu, Kenya by Cessna 206 via Flickr.

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