19 Lessons from 41 World Heritage Sites

[Above: The Roman aquaduct at Segovia, Spain. All photos by Swen Lorenz.]

Insights from a 2016 World Heritage Whirlwind

This past year I have visited 41 World Heritage sites, reaching the 38-site goal I set on my Facebook page in January 2016, plus three that I had visited before. Here are the things this mad dash to some of the world’s most incredible places taught me:

  • As of 2016, there were 1,052 World Heritage sites. I have now seen a total of 100 of them. The World Heritage Committee adds 10 to 30 new ones to the list each year. Seeing 41 in a year makes you realise just how many amazing places there are on this planet, and that you really don’t stand a chance ever to see them all.
  • They generally are darn cool! Before I visit a country, I now habitually google “World Heritage” plus the country name and look through the local list. I am two-legged evidence for the World Heritage designation being a driver of tourism.
Inside the Escurial Monastery, north of Madrid, Spain.

Inside the Escurial Monastery, north of Madrid, Spain.

  • Architectural and cultural sites tend to be in good condition, and will probably remain in good shape because buildings are in some ways easier to protect than many natural sites.
  • For natural sites, I generally fear the worst, with a few exceptions. Not necessarily because I visited many this year (only two that were new to me), but because of what I hear from other sources and from having worked in such a place myself. (For 3 years I was CEO of the Charles Darwin Foundation in the Galápagos Islands, the very first World Heritage site to be listed.)
    Exploitation of resources, mass tourism, overpopulation—the threats to these natural sites often seem as overwhelming as the organisations working to protect them seem under-equipped and insufficiently effective.
    How is it possible that in the year 2016, several large iconic species in Africa face extinction? Industrial-scale poaching of elephants, for instance. The continent has seen the worst reduction in elephant populations in 25 years. Less than 500,000 elephants still survive there, compared to 26 million in 1800. Extinction is now a real risk. If we can’t even protect elephants, what can we protect?

Before It’s Too Late . . .

  • Thus my number one take-away of the year: I want to see natural World Heritage sites before they get destroyed or irreversibly changed. There are 203 of them worldwide, so there’s plenty to see. I will prioritise the ones in developing countries because that’s where problems tend to be the most severe.
  • The other sites I want to visit sooner rather than later are the hyper-popular places that suffer from ever-increasing crowding. The Taj Mahal now gets over 100,000 visitors on some days; Venice is drowning in mass tourism to a degree that the local population has started to protest; visitor numbers at Angkor went from a few thousand in the 1990s to a staggering 2.1 million last year, etc. With these floods of visitors come McDonald’s branches, T-shirt shops, street vendors, and other annoyances that alter the character of a place. Few sites have the good governance of the Alhambra in Spain, where a strict and limited ticketing system is applied.
  • If there was a way to visit World Heritage Sites through virtual reality, then I would do that for some, but not for others. I hope VR will eventually be on offer. I’d pay for it. For a good number of sites already overloaded with tourists, a virtual visit may be the only way to accommodate future visitor interest.

Time to Spruce Up the World Heritage Brand

  • The World Heritage website of UNESCO is outdated from a user-experience perspective. I use it to check the names of sites, then research everything else elsewhere, usually starting with Wikipedia. Another useful resource is www.worldheritagesite.org, a website run by Els Slots, a volunteer enthusiast.
A neglected World Heritage sign—too common a sight.

A neglected World Heritage sign—too common a sight.

  • It’s sad to see that sometimes there seems little effort put into local representation of the World Heritage brand, its message, and its mission. Sometimes you see a sign. Mostly you don’t, and if you do, it may be rusty or hard to find. Among my friends— a well-travelled, well-educated lot—my year-long anecdotal survey found that hardly anyone really knew what World Heritage does, how it functions, how it’s funded. Doesn’t bode well for this institution. There is some pretty scathing criticism out there about the entire World Heritage system, e.g. in the Guardian and the Economist.
  • At every single site, I would have been happy to toss $30, $50, or $100 into a hat to donate to protection efforts and support for the local community—funding with no strings attached and no questions asked. It would have just required a hat and a sign. The problem is, they rarely asked. World Heritage may be the world’s worst case of missed on-site fundraising opportunities. Based on my own research, there are many hundreds of millions of foreign visitors to World Heritage sites each year. To my knowledge no official, consolidated statistics exist. But in any case, it’s a staggering number, and that’s not even counting still greater volumes of local domestic visitors.
Yakushima Island, Japan.

A burbling stream on Yakushima Island, Japan.

  • Folks always ask me which 38 were my favourites. In 2016, the winners were Wadi al-Hitan (“Whale Valley”) in Egypt, Lebanon’s Temples of Baalbek (at least on par with the pyramids), and Yakushima Island in Japan (beautiful natural heritage and well protected). The Alhambra and the Taj Mahal were close runner-ups. Below is my entire 2016 list of 41 sites, which came together through a mixture of personal interests, availability of cheap flights, and opportunities to combine business trips with personal pleasure.
  • If someone asked which sites were the worst, I’d say that actually all of them were great in some way. The nomination process administered by UNESCO is pretty solid! But I put a question mark next to the fabulous Soclet House in Brussels. It’s a private house, which kind of defeats the purpose (although it may still be opened to the public one day). Others were less spectacular than I anticipated, but had a fabulous history to discover, such as the Selimiye Mosque and its architect, Mimar Sinan.

WH Sites Need Citizen Reviews—By Visitors Who Take Time

  • I would have loved to feed my observations and photos into a giant database hosted by UNESCO to help them police the sites. Imagine a global army of millions of citizen observers armed with smartphones, an app, and a mission to report their observations to World Heritage HQ using short surveys and other simple mechanisms. Such citizen reviews could go into the sites’ regular evaluations and be used to improve matters (including which UNESCO signs are covered in rust and dirt and need to be polished).
    By now, I understand that this idea is naïve, as the people in charge of a site probably wouldn’t want visitors to participate in such a way. It’d shine a light on all sorts of problems and force the authorities to respond publicly—or even act! If such a mobile, networked alarm system were desired, it would already be in place, given that technology and software doesn’t cost much these days and there is a growing number of philanthropic funders who’d be interested in this kind of automatisation and data collection. Sad to see a good system being so behind the curve.
  • My practice of rushing through these places really didn’t do them justice. Establishing a goal based on a number of sites to be visited was really quite stupid—bucket list tourism. For the most part these sites deserve spending quality time to see them. I also regret not having had more time to read a few books (old and new) about each site beforehand. Reading up on my iPhone in the taxi to a site simply isn’t good enough.
The historic center of Porto, Portugal.

The historic center of Porto, Portugal.

  • On a positive note, visiting the sites quickly allowed me to identify which ones I want to read a lot more about and then re-visit. First among them is Baalbek, then anything in Egypt, followed by the Alhambra (also because Granada is a lovely gateway town that has kept its character so far. A nice place to visit in itself).
  • In terms of the conservation of these places, one of the coolest organisations I came across was CyArk, who are using new technologies to create a public, 3D online library of the world’s cultural heritage sites in case they get lost through natural disaster, war, etc.
  • If I ever need an idea on where to host the ultimate birthday party, a product launch, or a celebrity event, then the list of World Heritage sites will serve me as inspiration. Some of them are for hire.
  • There are probably more World Heritage sites in your own country than you’d think. At least that was the case for me in the UK: 30!
  • I am glad that I read up on the World Heritage Convention; it’s a fascinating system. The best book about it is from Mechtild Roessler, called Many Voices, One Vision. Expensive, but to my knowledge simply the best thing written about the subject, and goes to show what incredible intellect went into the entire system when it was created.

Here is the list of my trips this year. I posted a set of photos and some brief travel notes from each site on Facebook:

  1. Tower of London (UK)
  2. Maritime Greenwich (UK)
  3. Westminster Palace (UK)
  4. Newgrange Stone Age Passage Tomb (Ireland)
  5. Soclet House (Belgium)
  6. Brussels Palais (Belgium)
  7. Pyramids of Giza (Egypt)
  8. Wadi al Hitan / Whale Valley (Egypt)
  9. Old Centre of Cairo (Egypt)
  10. Agra Fort (India)
  11. Temple of Fatephur Sikri (India)
  12. Red Fort (India)
  13. Taj Mahal (India)
  14. Humayun’s Tomb (India)
  15. Qutb Minar (India)
  16. Ancient capital of Nara (Japan)
  17. Yakushima Island (Japan)
  18. Hiroshima (Japan)
  19. Horju-yi Temple (Japan)
  20. Itsukushima Shinto Shrine (Japan)
  21. Gunkanjima / Battleship Island (Japan)
  22. Temples of Baalbek (Lebanon)
  23. Ruins of Anjar (Lebanon)
  24. Selimiye Mosque (Turkey)
  25. Old Town of Istanbul (Turkey)
  26. Akropolis (Greece)
  27. Old Town of Porto (Portugal)
  28. Venice (Italy); not for the 1st time
  29. Galapagos Islands (Ecuador); not for 1st time
  30. Old Town of Quito (Ecuador); not for 1st time
  31. Alhambra Palace (Spain)
  32. Palau de la Musica and Hospital de Sant Pau (Spain)
  33. Gaudi’s works of architecture (Spain)
  34. Old Town of Segovia and its Aqueduct (Spain)
  35. Old Town of Avila (Spain)
  36. Historic City of Toledo (Spain)
  37. Aranjuez Cultural Landscape (Spain)
  38. Monastery and Site of the Escurial Madrid (Spain)
  39. University of Alcale de Henares (Spain)
  40. Historic Walled Town of Cuenca (Spain)
  41. Old City of Salamanca (Spain)

What To Do About Overcrowded Destinations

[Note: The following post is adapted from a presentation by Travel Foundation CEO Salli Felton at the Green Destinations Day conference in Ljubljana, Slovenia, 27 Sept.2016. Above: Tourists crowd Florence, Italy. Photo: Matt Haughey]

Tourism Leaders, We Have a Problem

Let’s take a tour to Venice. An amazing destination (below).

Venice's Grand Canal. Photo: Ian Dolphin

Venice’s Grand Canal. Photo: Ian Dolphin

Those of you who have been to Venice know that the reality is a little more like this:

Piazza San Marco, Venice. Photo: Gary Bembridge.

Piazza San Marco, Venice. Photo: Gary Bembridge.

If have been watching the news, you will know that the people who live in Venice are saying they’ve had enough. We’re seeing headlines like these:

Residents fear visitors are destroying their city
Mass tourism and soaring property prices have stifled life in the city

I don’t want to criticise Venice. Instead I want to use it and a few other destinations to highlight the increasing, unchecked growth in tourism.

Barcelona Tourism Overkill

Barcelona tourism overkill. Photo: Evan Bench

The same problem exists in Barcelona – where this sort of messaging you see at right is appearing on the streets. Or more disturbingly, “Tourism is a bigger problem than poverty”.

For tourists, this doesn’t exactly feel like a warm welcome. Destination authorities are being forced to respond: “The Mayor ramps up efforts to introduce caps on visitors”. The trend continues in Berlin and many other cities that are on the global bucket list.

The problem isn’t just restricted to cities. We’re seeing it on islands like Majorca, and in beach holiday destinations like Thailand.

For decades, tourists have chosen Thailand for a holiday because they want to see and experience this:

Maya Bay, Phi Phi Islands, Thailand. Photo: Phalinn Ooi

Maya Bay, Phi Phi Islands, Thailand. Photo: Phalinn Ooi

But these days, similar to Venice, what they are actually getting is this:

Maya Bay, Phi Phi Islands, Thailand. Photo: Niruth Darid Bannob

Maya Bay, Phi Phi Islands, Thailand. Photo: Niruth Darid Bannob

So what’s the impact of all of these people?

Well, if you start with the tourists, they don’t seem to be that happy about it. They are being very vocal in telling their friends, family, and the wider TripAdvisor world that Maya Bay is “overcrowded and horrific”.

Ouch—not a way any destination wants to be described. Even more concerning, if you dig a little deeper, it quickly becomes apparent that the natural environment there is on the point of collapse. Nearly all the coral in the bay is dead or close to it. And like Barcelona, Thai officials are recognising the seriousness of these impacts. They are taking drastic action to stop the damage before it is too late. If in fact it’s not already.

Now all of these examples are from within the past 12 months. It’s pretty uncomfortable reading for anyone who loves to travel.

The Basic Mistake

However my objective is not to be all doom and gloom. I don’t for a minute believe that tourism is a lost cause or believe that all tourism has to result in the types of outcomes I’ve shown you here. I believe that tourism as an industry has one of the greatest potentials to be a catalyst for sustainable growth and economic development, bringing much needed income into local economies. I believe tourism provides a compelling argument for the conservation and preservation of natural and cultural resources. It provides the financial means to support this.

But if this is the case, why are we seeing these trends growing? How has tourism been allowed to go down this path in so many of these instances? To understand this we have to look at the root cause of the problem. You don’t need to be a genius to see that it’s all about putting quantity before quality.

When done badly, tourism focuses only on one simple measure: numbers of tourist arrivals. The assumption is that more people are better. More people mean more money, which in theory means more benefits for everyone. The theory doesn’t always translate into practice. It’s pretty clear that the people of Venice, Barcelona, or Thailand are not realising more benefits.

In the early stages of tourism development, visitor numbers can be a useful proxy indicator, as more visitors often translates into more benefits at this stage. But as destinations become more established, the relationship between volume and benefits weakens and so the measure of tourist arrivals becomes fundamentally flawed. More people might be bringing in more money, but where does it go? Does it stay in the country or does it leak out? And what are the environmental and social costs of more people? Does all this money they bring in cover these costs?

From these examples, more people don’t seem to be making tourists, residents, or destination authorities happier. They just seem to be creating major problems. If destinations are measuring only numbers of tourist arrivals, they can’t possibly have a clue:

  1. Whether tourism is providing economic benefit to all members of a destination community;
  2. Whether tourism is having a detrimental impact on the very resources that sustain both residents and tourists, or
  3. Whether destination residents feel that their interactions with tourists are positive.

The number of tourist arrivals just tell us about quantity, not quality. So, in order to ensure that tourism fulfills its potential to encourage sustainable development, we need to understand what impact tourism is having on destinations. We need to find ways to measure this so that destinations can do a better job of managing tourism proactively.

There is a Solution

This will require global tourism frameworks to set new measures and targets to drive the way tourism is planned and managed for the future. The sorts of questions destinations need to be thinking about are:

• What types of tourism provide the greatest possible benefits at the least cost?
• What is the carrying capacity of the destination? How much is too much?
• What environmental and social costs will be encountered from tourism and how will mitigation be paid for?
• What limits need to be set to ensure destinations prosper from tourism whilst maintaining their long term sustainability?

All of these things will help destinations define what good growth looks like. If we can’t define it, how can we expect to achieve it? Understanding and measuring impacts is essential, but that’s not necessarily evident to the key stakeholders with the power to change existing practice. I’m talking about the government ministries who manage and regulate tourism and the private-sector travel companies who put together the packages that send tourists to the destinations. Aside from such destinations as Slovenia, Bhutan, and a handful of others, it appears that this message has not sunk in very widely.

So let’s think first about the private sector – the tour operators, hotel chains, ground handlers, and cruise companies. Are they measuring the impacts of their activities? Do they know if their businesses are having a positive or negative impact on the destinations they are selling? Maybe for a very small handful, yes—but across the board? No.

And what about the destination authorities, have they measured the impact tourism is having on the natural resources that sustain them? Or the impact tourism is having on the social fabric, such as quality employment, opportunities for small business growth, levels of crime, and the general well being of residents? Are they planning ahead and trying to attract the types of tourism that will provide the greatest positive impact? Again—a very small handful, yes, but generally, no. Why not? Because these things aren’t currently deemed to be the important measures of successful tourism.

This needs to change.

And changing it is. Over the past 10 years we’ve seen a variety of destination management frameworks being created to gather the sort of data that would be required to measure impacts. Among the numerous contributors to this effort are the Global Sustainable Tourism Council, Green Destinations, the European Tourism Indicator System, and the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), which has published Indicators of Sustainable Development for Tourism Destinations and launched a Network of Tourism Observatories with the aim to begin implementing these new policies and measurements.
So we are heading in the right direction. But it’s too slow, and there are two key issues that we still need to address.

Two Steps to Success

First, it’s clear that only a small number of converted champions are actually using these frameworks. They’re often ignored in destinations feeling the greatest negative impact from tourism or by the companies that help create these impacts. We need to work harder and faster at making these frameworks mainstream. To do this, we need to resist selling these frameworks primarily as a promotion or marketing tool. That is a fortunate by-product, not the reason to do it in the first place.

Instead we need to show companies and destinations that these frameworks add real value. The data and information they provide show where things are going wrong, how to fix things proactively, and where the greatest benefits can be gained. Simply put, measuring impact is good for the bottom line in the long term. Without it, we are just working in the dark. That is how impact assessment needs to be sold.

Second, the extra step to analyse this data needs emphasis. I’m not convinced these frameworks provide simple, clear, and practical ways for companies and destinations to analyse the data they collect. Destination authorities need to understand the material impacts of tourism. Yet, in my humble opinion, most of them don’t know how to do this. They’re still struggling to work out which indicator scheme to use! Whilst they might be collecting the data, they also need help using it to support strategic decision making.

So I put this challenge to you. The UN has declared 2017 the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development. We need to make the most of it and ensure it results in a positive step change. Let’s work together to build a new way to measure tourism success based on impact—and by doing so, unlock its potential to support happy, thriving destinations for generations to come.

Two Billion Footprints: Good News Or Not?

[Above—A two-hour wait: Tourists queue in drizzle for the cable car up Mt. Huangshan, China, a World Heritage site. Annual visitation c.4 million.  Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot]

Celebrated on Sept. 27, World Tourism Day is an observance championed by the U.N. World Tourism Organization and intended to point out the value of tourism. Initiated 35 years ago, much of the impetus for World Tourism Day sprang from the desire to convince governments and industry that tourism was bigger and more important than they realized. This is understandable, because tourism is bigger and more important than almost anyone realizes. When tourism works well, it’s fun and beneficial. It boosts the economy, helps preserve cultural and natural sites, and educates the public. When it doesn’t…well, that’s the dark cloud inside the silver lining.

This year’s theme was “One billion tourists—one billion opportunities!” Nice and upbeat, but it smacks of the more-is-better boosterism led for years by an officialdom that calls for ever-increasing numbers of arrivals.

This attitude is naïvely out of date. Better to think more realistically of “One billion tourists—two billion footprints.” Tourism, counted among the very largest industries on Earth, is changing the face of the planet and posing challenges with its relentless growth.

Of all the famous malaprops attributed to the late, beloved Yogi Berra, none rings truer in the tourist world than: “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

Over the past half century, international travel has increased almost 20-fold in terms of arrivals. Domestic tourism worldwide has kept pace, at four or five times the volume. Growth continues unabated, but the places all these people visit are still the same size. Resorts and vacation homes gobble up coastlines. You can see the press of numbers most clearly in the world’s great cultural sites, from Venice to Angkor to Chichén Itzá.

Early this year, I was privileged to visit Argentina’s Perito Moreno glacier, famed for steadily calving into an Andean lake. It’s in Los Glaciares National Park, a World Heritage site. It lies far, far south in Patagonia, down toward the end of the inhabited world, 1700 miles (2700 km) south of Buenos Aires. In short, not a place you’re likely to visit on the way to some other region. Yet annual visitation ranks in the hundreds of thousands, with over 600,000 people moving through the airport at the booming gateway town of El Calafate.

If we now see that much tourist traffic about as far as you can get from the human population’s center of gravity, it’s no wonder more accessible, better-known destinations are drowning in it. Florence, for example, must cope with 16 million tourists a year, many of them day-trippers who clog the streets while contributing little to the quality of the city.

World Tourism Day should now carry an additional mission. Not just: “It’s big! It’s great!” But also: “We will learn how to manage it better!” We need deeper, more meaningful and memorable travel experiences and fewer busloads armed with selfie sticks.

Another one of Yogi’s sayings was “If you come to a fork in the road, take it.” That impossible ambiguity fits tourism leaders who maintain: Quantity, quality, can’t we have both?

In most cases—no, you can’t.

New Tsunami Hits Phuket: Mass Tourism

[Crowds seeking nightlife in Phuket. Photo: Terrazzo]

Recently waiting in Phuket airport for my delayed Thai Airways flight to Bangkok, I found myself surrounded by Russian travelers queuing up for nonstop flights to Vladivostok, Novosibirsk, and a few other cities whose names were only vaguely familiar to me.

Facing congestion in Phuket, whether at the airport, on the roads or on beaches has long been a familiar phenomenon. What is different is that the congestion is mostly caused by the onslaught of mass tourism from Russia and China.

Due to the recent ruble nosedive, it is now the big Chinese tour groups that are changing – rapidly and probably forever—what was once a quaint beach escape destination. Despite Phuket’s growing commercialization, Fortune magazine in 2005 still called it one of the five most attractive places in the world to retire.

A local hotelier I spoke to reported a significant change. Once his hotel (whose identity he wanted to keep to himself) use to be monopolized by sun-hungry Scandinavians. Now, he said, they occupy a mere 10% of his room capacity. Signs everywhere from the airport to roadside cafes appear in Russian, Chinese, and English.

No wonder. Hoteliers all over Southeast Asia are gearing up to cope with the massive influx, with varying degrees of enthusiasm. The figures tell the story: Today an estimated 50% of Chinese citizens hold passports. In a few years China will boast more dollar millionaires than in the US. It is their accumulated spending power that no doubt helps putting China in top position in terms of outbound tourism spending, with expenditures reaching US$ 165 billion in 2014—an increase of 28% from the preceding year

In 2013 Phuket received 8 million visitors. In an effort to meet the increased demand, Phuket International Airport has been spending close to 6 billion baht to accommodate an expected 12.5 million passengers annually, of which the great majority will be foreigners. Soon a majority of these will be carrying a Chinese passport, up from a mere 20,000 Chinese arrivals in 2007! The Chinese presence is felt not only in southern Thailand, but all over southeast Asia: In 2014 the China National Tourism Administration recorded more than 107 million trips abroad, up 10.5% from the year before.

According to Thom Henley, an American travel writer and Phuket resident, tourist crowds bring the ratio between foreigners and locals in high season well above ten to one. The environment takes a beating. “I only rarely go for a swim in the ocean,” he says, “it’s just too polluted, and poses a public health threat, unless you stick to the Northern part of the island, or all the way down at the Southern end, where the strong currents wash effluents and debris away from the beaches.” Which perhaps explained the somewhat pallid skin color of the Russians waiting in line for their return flights; they seemed to have spent more time in Phuket’s numerous bars and massage parlors than in the surf.

What was once a densely forested island with lush hillsides facing wide stretches of beach now boasts 1,100 resorts with 24/7 traffic jams. Writer Tony Parsons (his recent 2012 novel: Catching the Sun) recommends North Phuket’s two national parks—Sirinath and Khao Phra Thaeo—as escapes for travelers trying to capture at least some of Phuket’s old magic, a safe distance away from the hordes in Karon and Patong. Here, he writes, “the beaches still have their steep natural slope so that giant turtles can crawl ashore and lay their eggs.”

Five years ago the government tried to launch a “green tourism” campaign, hiring police and soldiers to enforce a clean-up of polluted areas. At the same time, however, they allowed the construction of a monstrosity called Fantasea, a shabby reproduction of a Thai-style temple, where tourists flock to be photographed on the back of gaudily dressed live elephants, Las Vegas-style.

It is not an enviable fate to be “loved to death” by two populous nations whose citizens only recently can afford foreign travel, and who are not known for their environmental sensitivities. But Thailand’s record in the stewardship of its own nature capital is not to be applauded, as the ecosystems of countless island has paid a high price in the chase for short-term foreign currency.