In far-flung places around the globe, there are endangered cultural sites in need of preservation, which spurs tourism and economic enrichment in nearby communities. Heritage conservation not only preserves historical record, but it can also open up a previously difficult-to-visit location to travelers and give them a whole new view of the region and its culture.
Tony Wheeler, founder of Lonely Planet and board member of Global Heritage Fund, has been to many “dangerous” sites on the planet, whether they are located in regions where there was a history of civil unrest or environmental hazards. But his aim, along with Vince Michael, executive director of Global Heritage Fund, is to encourage travelers (intrepid and armchair) to expand their horizons and explore these areas, many of which are heritage development sites that ultimately benefit local communities with tourism income.
Global tourism is responsible for 8.7 percent of the world’s employment, making it one of the biggest global job creators, according to the 2012 report, The Comparative Economic Impact of Travel and Tourism, by the World Travel & Tourism Council. “At 9.1 percent of global GDP, Travel & Tourism generates more economic output than automotive manufacturing (7.9 percent), mining (8.0 percent) and chemicals manufacturing (9.0 percent).”
“Travel is a hugely important part of the world’s economy. It’s the way we meet other people and realize that other people are not just the tales we read in the newspaper and see on television screens, but they’re real human beings,” says Wheeler.
Recently, Wheeler and Michael shared their experiences visiting locations in Colombia, Turkey and Laos. Wheeler says that even destinations that are thought to be hazardous are navigable as long as travelers educate themselves and take precautions, “although the potential dangers are never as bad as people think they might be.”
In the 1970s and 1980s, Colombia had a negative reputation for drug trafficking which deterred many tourists from visiting. In the past 10 years, Michael explained, the drug trafficking has been rooted out and replaced with a growing tourist economy, boosted by native citizens acting as guides and providing lodging. Michael and Wheeler went on a three-day trek to Ciudad Perdida to view the stone platforms and stairways throughout the jungle.
“I never felt threatened by anything except the humidity and mud,” Michael laughed.
The accessibility of Ciudad Perdida is due to collaboration by the Global Heritage Fund, USAID (United States Agency for International Development) and the Colombian government.
Some locations were inaccessible in the past due to environmental concerns, like Plain of Jars, Laos, a 2,000-year-old heritage site containing thousands of ancient stone cylinders. For decades tourists were not able to visit due to abandoned land mines from the Vietnam War along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Upon the removal of the land mines, tourists were better able to reach some of the Plain of Jars sites. Global Heritage Fund has also been instrumental in training locals on the importance of conservation and preservation.
“One of the things we do at Global Heritage Fund is identify these sites early on when they first become accessible and help build the local economy around the heritage site. It’s an opportunity when things start to change.
I always like to use the example that we talk about community economic development and we can say, well, let’s build a factory there, build some shops or offices, but those are things that you can move to another place that might give you a better deal or have cheaper land or something like that. A heritage site is of a place, it’s not going to move, so if you can make that heritage site active economically, it’s a sustainable form of economic development,” says Michael.
Wheeler adds that while the sites can be important academically, in order for them to be a long-term, sustainable economic tool, the local community must be involved. “You need the local community to feel that ‘this is something we own, it’s our local site, we’re the people that live here, we want to protect it.’ And part of the reason is that they are making an income from it. They are running the guesthouse, the café, their son is a guide and their children work at the site – they have a real involvement with this,” says Wheeler.
The Global Heritage Fund works with local government and other partners to restore a site, then hands it off to be maintained locally. While the organization remains involved in the conservation work that is ongoing, partners and the community are responsible for moving things forward.
“When we got there [Göbekli Tepe, Turkey, a site that is 5,000 years older than Stonehenge], they had started excavating maybe fifteen years earlier and there was no conservation going on, and moreover there wasn’t any basic infrastructure. There wasn’t a fence around the site, there wasn’t any cover to protect the stones from eroding in the weather. We did those things and now we’ve leveraged the European Union to come in at a very high funding level to build a permanent cover and the local community has built a museum. It’s a very good example of how we try to get in there before it’s recognized, do the important work and get the community involved,” Michael says.
“Global Heritage Fund has a detailed project selection process methodology that is called Preservation By Design that combines conservation and planning with community development and partnerships,” Michael explained, “so we judge our projects based on those criteria. We look for developing regions of the world, places that need the investment or economic spinoff, and we look at threatened sites, whether they’ve been newly uncovered or looted, we look at world heritage, then we look at what are the possibilities for bringing our expertise and conservation planning and community development and what partners are there.”
Although the influx of tourism is usually a welcome economic boost, there are sometimes barriers, Michael says. Bureaucracy in the form of permits and red tape and regions with conflicts that are too dangerous to overcome can halt a project. Also, being a foreign NGO can be both an advantage and disadvantage. Local politics can cause the organization to be frozen out, but at other times a foreign NGO can serve as a neutral outside party and smooth over local conflicts.
In all their travels, do Michael and Wheeler have a favorite site? They both say they are intrigued by an emerging project in rural Romania. Wheeler says the villages are “just beautiful,” but people are leaving them and moving to the cities, so they are in danger of being abandoned. Global Heritage Fund is hoping to breathe some life back into them, which brings up another concern, Michael says. “In some ways the biggest threat to heritage can be development.” The organization will have to walk a fine line to preserve their charm while bringing people to the Transylvanian countryside.
There is no shortage of sites being considered for preservation projects, Michael says. As a board member and life-long traveler, Wheeler sees a huge potential for Global Heritage Fund to grow and bring attention, and travelers, to deserving sites all around the world.
Image credits: Ciudad Perdida – Stefaan Poortman. Plain of Jars – Dan Thompson. Photos used with permission from Global Heritage Fund.