Reposted from CN Traveler
Being named a UNESCO World Heritage site is the ultimate feather in the cap for travel destinations. But along with the prestige, increased popularity, and tourism dollars, the designation brings greater responsibility—both in heritage preservation and sustainable development. While this summer saw 34 new spots including Nice, France, and the Southern Islands of Japan added to the coveted list, other sites aren’t faring so well.
The United Nations committee regularly places sites marred by mismanagement, climate change, and other impacts on its “World Heritage in Danger” list before delisting them completely. This year, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef narrowly avoided a downgrade and now has until February 2022 to produce a progress report on its health. Meanwhile, Liverpool, England, was officially stripped of its UNESCO designation after several warnings about detrimental new construction along its historic waterfront.
The good news? The looming threat of losing this privileged recognition is a major wake-up call for existing UNESCO World Heritage sites, including those not in immediate danger. As a result, more locations are rolling out updates that will change how travelers interact with cultural and natural heritage, and will, hopefully, increase the resiliency of these sites in the face of growing environmental impacts and overtourism.
“Countries are increasingly signing onto sustainable development models where cultural heritage conservation plays a role,” says Susan Macdonald, head of Getty Conservation Institute’s Field Projects, which recently hosted an in-depth discussion with cultural heritage leaders about the pandemic’s impact on conservation efforts. “In other places, the lure of development makes it hard to achieve well-balanced approaches—this takes commitment, leadership, and long-term vision.”The pandemic has allowed several destinations the time and temporary lull in visitors to make changes that local governments hope will prioritize preservation.
Controlling capacity numbers
Anyone who’s been to the Historic Sanctuary of Machu Picchu knows just how busy its crown jewel, the Inca Citadel, can get. After receiving an average of 4,000 visitors per day in 2018 and 2019—nearly double the number deemed appropriate by conservationists—Peru’s Ministry of Culture announced last year it would be limiting capacity to 2,244 visitors per day to remain in good standing with UNESCO.
But with a controversial new airport near Cusco scheduled to be completed by 2025 and local entities that rely on tourism pushing to see that number grow, it’s clear there needs to be a better model for sustainable growth. As a result, the park’s conservation team is working to build new routes and visitor centers to better disperse travelers that currently bottleneck the site. After all, the entire park encompasses over 37,000 hectares of land and more than 60 archaeological sites—many of which don’t get nearly the same amount of attention as the famous citadel.
“Heritage and tourism should not be in a permanent fight,” says José M. Bastante, director of the archaeological park. “In the future, with new routes and real-time monitoring of possible impacts, we will be able to increase the capacity of Machu Picchu up to almost 6,000. This will be progressive, based on evidence that the measurements we are taking are successful in avoiding negative impacts on our heritage.”
Reduced tourism during the pandemic allowed the team to improve trails and cover areas with blocks that help prevent erosion. Now, the focus is on opening alternative routes to ease pressure on existing trails and diversify the communities benefiting from tourism. Currently under construction is the Amazon Access Route, which connects the Intihuatana community with the areas of San Miguel, Inkarakay, Mandor, and Puente Ruinas toward Aguas Calientes. The soon-to-be-unveiled second corridor will link the community of Choquellusca (which sits at the border of Piscacucho in the district of Ollantaytambo) with the archaeological site of San Antonio de Torontoy, allowing visitors to pass through lesser-visited cultural sites on their way to the Inca city.
Tourists behaving disrespectfully (lying down in the grass, running, shouting, eating, and whistling are all against the rules) is still a major concern. Bastante says they’re hoping to address this by implementing visitor fines, reducing the maximum group size from 16 to 12, and constructing a new visitor center at the base of the citadel within the next two years. The hope is that the programming here will provide tourists with more information about the property’s Outstanding Universal Value and sacred significance, and help curtail damaging behavior.
Encouraging more intentional visits
Before the devastating fire of 2019, the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris was one of the most-visited monuments in Europe, welcoming 12 million people a year. Now, with plans to reopen by 2024, conservationists are planning to create a more in-depth visitor experience.
“The average length of the visit was only twenty minutes, which is a very limited amount of time to understand the cathedral, its history, and its architecture,” Jonathan Truillet, Notre Dame’s deputy director of conservation and restoration, told Getty. “As we prepare for the reopening, we want to improve the visitor experience while enabling better conservation and understanding of the monument.”
Part of the challenge is balancing tourism with preservation. For instance, the old flooring in the cathedral was damaged by the high number of visitors, says Truillet. They’re now conceptualizing better ways to control foot traffic and encourage visitors to stay longer.
The new visitor experience will include separate entrances for visitors and worshippers, updates to the site’s museum, and an improved presentation of The Mays, a series of large paintings from the 17th century that is displayed in May in honor of the Virgin Mary, says Michel Picaud, President of Friends of Notre-Dame de Paris, an organization that has been spearheading the fundraising efforts for the cathedral since 2016.
“We’re also ensuring security measures are well taken care of because the lack of maintenance and technical security devices was one of the weaknesses of the cathedral,” Picaud says. “For example, we had no sprinklers on the roof of the cathedral. This is something we will put in place so that we contain any danger to the monument.”
Also changing is the restoration budget, which has grown from $200 million pre-fire to almost $1 billion thanks to over 340,000 new private donors—none of whom have canceled their gifts since the pandemic began. Unlike some countries that cut conservation budgets in 2020, Truillet says the French government has dedicated more funding to the restoration of historic buildings in a bid to support French companies specializing in old-world craftsmanship, proving that the interest in heritage protection is stronger than ever.
Meanwhile, in Greece, a different kind of fire is burning. As climate change-induced flames rage closer to the ancient sites of Olympia and the Acropolis of Athens, intergovernmental organizations are pushing to use new technology to save UNESCO World Heritage sites from natural disasters.
The UNESCO World Heritage Centre and the Hellenic Group on Earth Observation (GEO) teamed up to launch the Urban Heritage Climate Observatory (UHCO) this spring. The new global platform will use real-time satellite data, advanced sensors, and artificial intelligence to quickly identify the presence of wildfires, floods, and landslides near heritage sites and create post-disaster assessments to better shield vulnerable places, including at-risk locations in Greece, Turkey, Spain, Italy, and 20 other countries across Europe, Africa, the Americas, and Asia-Oceania.
“This is now the era when most countries are trying to build national adaptation plans due to climate change but in most of these plans, the cultural heritage piece is missing,” says Evangelos Gerasopoulos, director of the Greek GEO office. “Symbolically, we are trying to use Ancient Greece, the cradle of western civilization, to mobilize efforts. If we forget the past, we’re doing nothing for our future.”
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