Today, tourism is a world-wide industry of mammoth proportions and reaches into every corner of the Earth. It has a high increase rate. International arrivals are expected to reach over 1.56 billion by the year 2020. In 2006, this number was 842 million (World Tourism Organization). Cultural heritage tourism is increasingly used as a tool to stimulate regional development in both rural and urban contexts. Additionally, cultural tourism is growing faster than most other tourism segments and at a higher rate than tourism worldwide. Travelers are interested in opportunities to learn about places through the place’s intangible and physical heritage i.e. its buildings, setting, customs and ways of interacting socially and commercially.
Seeing the obvious opportunities, city planners and regional managers grasp the opportunity to use tourism as a stimulant for regional development and growth as well as for purposes of conservation. This dual role is perfectly suitable for the host country, state or region because it capitalises on visitation to sites, museums, restaurants and hotels and therefore has a ripple effect in the wider economy. It also generates jobs for those working in the tourism industry, restaurant business and associated interests. Governments covet the tourism industry with avid jealousy. One only has to look at how many entries there are today on the world heritage list (more than a thousand) when that register started out as the 7 wonders of the world in the 1960s. That is more than a hundred-fold increase in world heritage sites in 55 years.
Jockeying for position to get registered as a world heritage site has become a cut throat pursuit because once listed, the place becomes an assured tourist destination – assured by a committee of heritage experts who have carefully considered the merits of listing. The quid pro quo is that the host listee must conserve, manage and protect the site for current and future generations and that is a harder task than it would initially seem.
Driving the tourist dollars back into the listed asset is the part that is least well done. In the UK and Europe, an entry fee is required to enter a listed heritage site. That and refreshments, paraphernalia and fund raising supports listed places financially, but always only just. They are not money making ventures in themselves. Yet their mere presence as buildings, archaeological sites, towns, villages etc. is the backdrop towards which tourist move with interest and money to spend on related products.
Cultural tourism generally focuses on communities which have unique customs, unique forms of art and diverse social practices. It includes tourism in urban areas, particularly historic or large cities and towns along with museums, theatres and food outlets (cafes, browsing stores, traditional arts and hotels). It can also include tourism in rural areas showcasing the traditions of indigenous cultural communities and their lifestyles.
Conservation is a key factor in economic policies that support tourism development. It is a widely accepted fact that the conservation of cultural heritage is crucial as a tool for diversification i.e. stretching the tourist product as far as can be sustained by bringing in typically well educated, affluent and middle class visitors. The endeavour has an axiomatic upscaling effect on the economy. Tourists can interact with three kinds of cultural attributes; the physical (e.g. built heritage), the customary (general daily life in the host community) and the spiritual (e.g. rituals and festivals).
After the World War II, the world has seen a gradual increase in technology and urbanisation resulting in a series of threats to cultural built heritage. Due to migration, industrialisation, mobile capital and population density, people’s lives have changed stereotypically and in a globalised fashion. Just think how many people of all classes own mobile phones, have access to the Internet and shopping on line.
These factors pose a great threat to intangible and physical cultural assets. Because heritage is not a renewable resource; it needs to be conserved in the most efficient way and therefore management policies are required to be cognizant of the whole experience, product and asset i.e. the historic significance, the economic usage, visitation access, the fragility of the fabric, accessibility (language and interpretation) and maintenance policies. Only then can the listed place become truly sustainable. In the next thirty years, we will need to get better at this so as not to allow the significance to become cheapened or tarnished.
A conservation management plan for all heritage sites and places should be carefully and judiciously drawn up so that government and the private sector can learn how best to market and manage such places with responsibility and foresight in perpetuity.