Is UNESCO World Heritage status for cultural sites killing the things it loves?



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Tourists take a photo of sunrise at Angkor Wat in 2016.
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Jo Caust, University of Melbourne

Hoi An is a beautiful coastal town in central Vietnam that escaped the devastation of the American War. In 1999, it was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site because of the charm of its original architecture, river location, and continuity of cultural practices. UNESCO recognition has made it a major cultural tourism destination. In 2017, 3.22 million people visited, an increase of 22% on the previous year.

Authorities have introduced a ticketing system for visitors, but its purpose is to raise revenue and record tourist numbers rather than control them. The streets are relatively narrow. With the influx of mass tourism, some streets are impossible to walk in and the town has turned into an “ersatz” version of itself with all buildings turned into cafes and shops to service tourist needs. Many large tourist buses park for much of the day on the edges of the old town, to disembark and collect passengers, making an ugly impression as you enter.

Tourists on the Japanese Bridge in Hoi An.
Suree Pritchard/AAP

The local Vietnamese have been forced to move from the town’s centre to live on the outskirts. Ironically, while it is an important cultural tourism destination for its buildings, the culture of Hoi An has changed completely due to mass tourism. From once being a lively trading community, it is becoming a theme park.

In Cambodia, meanwhile, Angkor Wat is a major international cultural heritage site. It received UNESCO recognition in 1992. From 2004-14 visitor numbers to Angkor Wat increased by more than 300%. While the local authorities have introduced a visitors’ ticket to ostensibly control numbers (and bring in revenue), there are challenges from “wear and tear” as visitors touch structures and walk on ancient paths.




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The major challenge for Angkor Wat, however, is uncontrolled tourist development around the site. For instance, the construction of large hotels and the illicit tapping of groundwater have affected the water table beneath the temples, which in turn affects their stability.

Tourists at Angkor Wat in 2017.
Mak Remissa/AAP

While continuing to preserve the temples is not easy, the far greater problem is the lack of planning around the site, which has been left to the whims of the marketplace. Ultimately this unplanned development has the potential to destroy Angkor Wat itself.

The impact of mass tourism anywhere can be overwhelming, but it is compounded in communities in developing countries with less economic resources to undertake adequate protection or planning. The town of Luang Prabang in Laos faces similar issues to Hoi An. The local community is now mostly living outside the old town, which again has been given over to tourists and their needs.




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Other UNESCO World Heritage sites around the world are battling similar problems in dealing with mass tourism. The number of people travelling by air internationally has increased by an average of around 7% a year since 2009. This growth is expected to continue at a similar rate.

A river boat moors at the entrance to the Pak Ou Caves near Luang Prabang, Laos.
Stephen Johnson/AAP

As far back as 1972, UNESCO adopted the Convention for the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage. Two more conventions, adopted in 2003 and in 2005, further protect Intangible Cultural Heritage and the Diversity of Cultural Expression. The intent of these was to draw attention to cultural sites and practices to ensure their ongoing protection and longevity.

Achieving UNESCO status is an internationally competitive process. Nations want this recognition because they can promote a place or practice as a unique cultural tourism attraction.

Communities and nations do have obligations when they receive UNESCO recognition. They are expected to undertake various measures to protect the site or practice and ensure proper planning occurs. But while more attention may be applied to restoration or reduction of unsympathetic behaviour (for example, at Angkor Wat the authorities have introduced rules about appropriate clothing to be worn by visitors), the broader implications of increased visitation may not have been considered.




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Encouraging tourism as a means to improve the economic situation of communities can, in fact, destroy their uniqueness and cultural value. With the continuing increase in tourism, the situation will inevitably worsen.

The focus is at present on earning money from the site/practices, not preserving them. Mass tourism can damage sites irreversibly. Communities and countries have some hard choices to make.

Hoi An streetscape: most locals have been priced out of the centre of town and now live on the outskirts.
Suree Pritchard/AAP

With colleague Dr Mariana Vecco, I recently published a research article about these issues. Some of our recommendations for vulnerable sites include:

  • introducing control of visitor numbers as a matter of urgency
  • tighter planning controls on adjacent development
  • querying the use of sites for any tourist activities
  • auditing sites for damage already incurred.

All of this should occur if UNESCO status is to be continued. However, there is also a bigger conversation we need to have – should tourists visit vulnerable sites and practices?

The ConversationHoi An is still a beautiful town but the presence of “wall to wall” tourists mars it. Sadly, as long as UNESCO status is used more as a marketing device than a route to preservation, the situation will continue to deteriorate.

Jo Caust, Associate Professor and Principal Fellow (Hon), University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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The Barrier Reef is not listed as in danger, but the threats remain


Jon C. Day, James Cook University

The draft decision by UNESCO and IUCN proposes not to list the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) World Heritage Area as “in danger”, but it does put Australia on notice. It requests a progress report by 1 December 2016, vowing that if “the anticipated progress is not being made”, the GBR will be considered by the Committee in 2017.

At this stage, these are only recommendations, and the draft decision will be considered at the Committee’s meeting in Germany in late June, when the actual wording of the decision will be finalised.

The Committee does not always accept the wording in draft decisions and in recent years has often made amendments. Various factors can influence the views of its 21 member countries, so the final outcome may well depend on the Committee’s deliberations at the meeting.

The real state of the Reef

Either way, the reality is that despite all the pronouncements by the Australian government that the GBR is healthy, the evidence contained in its 2014 Outlook Report and Strategic Assessment has repeatedly demonstrated that the real situation is not as rosy as UNESCO and others are being told.

The following examples, from the Strategic Assessment, reveal the deterioration in many of the world heritage values for which the GBR was recognised as being internationally significant in 1981:

  • Since 1985, hard coral cover has declined from 28% to 13.8%, mainly in the southern two-thirds of the Reef.

  • Significant, widespread losses of seagrass have occurred in areas directly affected by cyclones Yasi (2011), Marcia (2015) and Nathan (2015); seagrass abundance south of Cooktown has declined since 2009.

  • Catastrophic nesting failures at globally significant seabird breeding areas have been recorded in the southern GBR, and the number of breeding seabirds on Raine Island has fallen by 70% since the 1980s.

  • The dugong population south of Cooktown has drastically declined from 1962 levels (see chapter 7, page 13 here).

Differing perspectives?

The government’s 2014 Outlook Report concluded that:

…the overall outlook for the Great Barrier Reef is poor, has worsened since 2009 and is expected to further deteriorate in the future. Greater reductions of threats at all levels, Reef-wide, regional and local, are required to prevent the projected declines in the Great Barrier Reef.

To make doubly sure the GBR was not listed as “in danger”, diplomatic lobbying seems to have become the government’s main focus in recent months, when what is really needed is a serious and continuous focus on addressing the issues highlighted in its own reports.

The government’s view about the overall health of the GBR differs from that of many concerned individuals and organisations throughout Australia. There is a widespread belief that not enough has been done to ensure the restoration of the world heritage values, especially those shown to be deteriorating. This has led many, including the Australian Academy of Science, to state that the Reef 2050 Long-term Sustainability Plan is deficient, particularly given the projected changes over the next 35 years.

Concerns for the GBR include climate change, water quality, coastal development, shipping, and unsustainable fishing. The Reef 2050 Plan will need to improve in all these areas if it is to achieve its intended aims.

A group of eminent Australians has also recently voiced their concerns about issues that will further impact on the GBR.

There were fears an endangered listing would damage tourism, but the real damage would be done by failing to save the reef.
AAP Image/Julian Smith

Unprecedented lobbying

The international lobbying about the GBR in 2014-15 has included senior government officials visiting all the countries on the Committee and briefing diplomats in Canberra and in Paris, offering GBR junkets to overseas journalists, and providing briefings to technical experts from many countries, including paying for visits to the Reef or to resort islands.

The government’s consistent message during all of this lobbying is that the GBR is healthy, and adequate financing will be available to implement the Reef 2050 Plan.

However, several overseas experts have recently told me that the briefings may not have provided the full picture. One example is the much-touted ban on dumping dredge spoil from port developments in the Marine Park, without raising the fact that about a million tonnes of maintenance dredging spoil will continue to be dumped every year in the World Heritage Area.

The expensive, excessive and selective lobbying about the GBR sets a poor global example in attempting to influence the decision-making processes of the World Heritage Committee.

What is the view of the tourism sector?

It has been claimed that tourism would suffer if the GBR were listed as “in danger”. The reality is that most tourist operators know only too well that the outlook for the GBR is poor, and many of them agree with Tony Fontes, a Whitsundays dive operator, who wrote to me:

“In-danger” listing … might actually be the catalyst to ensure the GBR is properly protected. Clearly more effective protection is essential now if we are to ensure tourism in the GBR is able to exist well into the future. Over the 35 years that I have been operating as a tourist operator, I have seen huge changes in the GBR. It’s clear the current management approach is not working to maintain the values which are the real draw cards for visitors, so more needs to be done to better protect the Reef, or the declining values are going to have an impact on the tourism industry in the future anyway.

Why more resources are needed

The government’s pledge to spend A$2 billion over 10 years is no more than the current collective annual expenditure (A$200 million) of four federal agencies, six state agencies and several major research programs over the coming decade.

So far, most funding has been spent addressing water quality, and while it has achieved some positive results, it has not managed to stop the deteriorating trends. According to one estimate, fixing the water quality problem alone will cost A$785 million over the first five years, and more beyond.

Even with an extra A$100 million for the Reef Trust in the Federal Budget, the funding is inadequate to deliver fully on the government’s promised plans.

The GBR generates more than A$5 billion every year, mainly from tourism. In economic terms, spending between A$200 million and $250 million per year to manage an asset that generates 20-25 times as much in revenue, but is declining, puts that future income in jeopardy.

If governments insist that further funds are unable be to found, then a re-prioritization of the existing funding must be undertaken to ensure the GBR’s values are restored.

Listing “in danger” would not have fixed the problems

An “in danger” listing, in and of itself, would not save the GBR. It would undoubtedly have raised international awareness of the problems, but those problems will still have to be addressed either way. Hopefully the government will now be encouraged by what it will see as a favourable outcome.

The government has been asked to report back on its policies next year, and on the status of the GBR in 2019. But given the clear evidence of the declining values, annual reporting to UNESCO should be required until it can be shown that the deteriorating trends have been reversed and the Reef 2050 Plan has been improved. The Outlook Report, while an comprehensive report on the overall status of the GBR, is deficient in the one thing that UNESCO needs to know: a thorough assessment of the condition and trend of all the world heritage values.

Irrespective of UNESCO’s final decision next month, Australia must do more to address the wide range of the threats identified in its own reports, and to show a genuine commitment to restoring the values of the GBR for the sake of future generations.

The Conversation

Jon C. Day is PhD candidate, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Australia reprieved – now it must prove it can care for the Reef


Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, The University of Queensland

UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee has decided not to add the Great Barrier Reef to the List of World Heritage in Danger, for now at least. In a draft decision released ahead of its annual meeting next month, it has welcomed Australia’s plan to save the Reef, but also demanded a progress report on its policies by the end of 2016, as well as a full update on the Reef’s conservation status by December 2019.

The move draws a temporary line underneath an issue that has loomed large for the past three years, bringing Australia’s stewardship of the Reef uncomfortably into the international spotlight.

During that time there has been copious input from scientists, politicians and campaigners, discussing threats such as climate change, dredging, pollution, shipping, and even the fate of the barramundi on our plates. It has got people talking all over the planet about whether or not the Australian and Queensland governments really care enough about one of the most recognisable symbols of Australia.

Not everyone has agreed with one another. As debated extensively on The Conversation and elsewhere, experts have advocated both for and against the idea of listing the Reef as endangered.

On one hand, the evidence is impossible to doubt that the Great Barrier Reef is in danger. Half of the corals on the Great Barrier Reef have disappeared since 1985, and the destruction of coastal habitat by rapid port development and other activities has been plain to see. On the other hand, the recent ramping up of remedies by both federal and state governments shows that our leaders clearly want to honour the promises made when the Great Barrier Reef was first listed as World Heritage in 1981.

Has UNESCO made the right call?

I have previously argued that a decision to list the Great Barrier Reef as endangered would be premature. So UNESCO’s decision makes a lot of sense to me, for several reasons.

The first is that the decline of the Great Barrier Reef began as much as 100 years ago, and hence is not something that the government can turn around overnight. It requires a concerted, non-political process that recognises and aggressively solves the problems of pollution, sediments, and unsustainable fishing.

Given that we have not had an effective process for some time (water quality, for instance, has been an issue for decades; it didn’t just pop up in the past couple of years), it would seem counterproductive to list the Great Barrier Reef as “in danger” at a time when federal and state governments are finally beginning to take clear actions in response to the issue. It will take time to rethink coastal agriculture, fix eroded gullies, and address issues such as coastal herbicide and pesticide use.

The second reason is that the response of ecosystems to these policy changes will necessarily be complex and slow. As coral populations hopefully rebound, seagrasses regrow, and threatened populations such as dugong being to recover, we will need to make careful long-term observations before we know if the actions taken now have been effective.

Short-term international manoeuvring won’t save the Great Barrier Reef. We need to think beyond politics and recognise that safeguarding the Reef will require a long-term commitment by Australia as a nation, not just a political process.

The third and final reason is that it would be rather perverse for UNESCO to ignore Australia’s clear intention to take this issue seriously. Given the effort that successive state and federal governments have made to avert an “in danger” listing, what incentive would remain if the listing was made anyway? It would hardly help to motivate future governments to fight the uphill battle of getting the listing removed again.

Crunch time

There is no doubt that federal environment minister Greg Hunt and his Queensland state counterpart Steven Miles will both be sighing with relief that the prospect of an “in danger” listing has been staved off for another five years. This is great for Australia and for the many people who believe that re-listing the reef as “in danger” would have been the wrong step to take at this time.

But the real work starts now. It’s time to vindicate UNESCO’s decision by showing that the Reef is truly being protected.

There are encouraging signs. The Queensland government has successfully introduced the Ports Bill, which restricts port development in Queensland to four so-called Priority Port Development Areas, and has restricted dredging for port facilities outside these areas for the next 10 years.

Meanwhile the federal government has banned port developers from dumping dredge spoil in the waters of the Great Barrier Reef, and both federal and state governments have committed to a long-term sustainability plan that acknowledges the major challenges from coastal development, pollution, and (in a somewhat less satisfactory way) climate change.

This is all well and good. But as pointed out before, the devil is in the detail. While still in process, much of these commitments still need to be legislated, and without legislation they are no more than hot air. We must also trust our science (and not private opinion), and ensure that we take real actions with a measurable outcome that safeguards the Reef.

It is also absolutely essential that loopholes, such as those within the Ports Bill, are removed so that we never again find ourselves engaging in activities that are ultimately at odds with the long-term future of the Great Barrier Reef. As it stands now, for example, the Ports Bill only prohibits “significant” port development. However, what is classified as “significant” is not defined by the Bill and is, at this point of time, entirely arbitrary. These problems need to be fixed if Australia’s apparent sincerity about solving the problems is to be believed.

Let’s hope that in 2020, when UNESCO assesses the progress that has been made, Australia passes with flying colours as a nation that has successfully turned around one of its most significant environmental problems.

The Conversation

Ove Hoegh-Guldberg is Director, Global Change Institute at The University of Queensland.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Article: Africa – New World Heritage Site


The link below is to an article that looks at the world’s latest World Heritage Site, which is in Africa. UNESCO has declared the new site which is shared by the Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic and Cameroon.

For more visit:
http://news.mongabay.com/2012/0702-tns-world-heritage.html