At the heart of the BBC article this morning hailing Machu Pichu opening again to tourists is a story driven by economy and climate sensitivity which calls our attention to the need for sustainable development in the heritage industry.
It is not new information that heritage sites make up a significant proportion of national economies. What are less frequently discussed are the dangers tourism poses to sites. Large numbers of visitors put strain on a country’s infrastructure.* Nations welcoming, nay encouraging, tourism must locate themselves in a sustainable development plan. It is a matter of great pride that countries can offer their heritage to generations living currently but they must at the same time have the foresight to preserve that heritage for future generations.
Sustainable Development in Albania
When I wrote my masters dissertation on southern Albania, sustainable development was at the forefront of everyone’s mind I worked with gathering data. There was attention paid to preserving the artefacts, landscape, ecological system, and flora and fauna which made the site of Butrint so special. There was also attention to sustainable development in terms of man power and training Albanians. It was the goal of the Butrint Foundation to make their own foundation extinct within a certain time frame. They trained native Albanians in the work and the administration, the oversight and the planning of the project, etc. Multiple types of sustainable development need to occur to prepare for the future.
Heritage Threatened in Cambodia
During my studies at Stanford, a visiting scholar presented the dire straights experienced in Cambodia consequent of mass tourist influxes. She described that as more visitors came and required more hotels, transportation, and amenities the local communities were building and developing in ways to accommodate their new sources of income. Forests were felled and luxury hotels were made. In the end the delicate eco, and particularly water, system which existed in the communities was undermined because tree roots were no longer there to hold the water in place. New drainage systems along roads and building sites were also eroding the natural landscape to the point where the heritage was in danger itself. The land was crumbling under the ancient temples. This example impressed on me the great importance of developing safely and conscientiously so heritage can move our children’s children.
Gro Harlem Bruntland
These thoughts inspired me last weekend when I had a remarkable opportunity. Quite coincidentally, last weekend I had the pleasure to moderate Gro Harlem Bruntland speaking on sustainable development at the Young Professionals Summit of the German Marshall Fund’s Transatlantic Security Conference: the Brussels Forum. I did not have the opportunity to ask her while sitting on the stage together about the need for sustainable development vis a vis heritage. However, I know she would have answered my query by saying that this is a vital part of the political and economic puzzle which must go on in our governments. After reading her speeches and the Bruntland Report, I think she would have added that the left hand and right hand need to learn to communicate with each other if we are to preserve our world for our children. It was an inspiring meeting because in 1987 after being elected Norway’s youngest and first ever female prime minister, Dr. Bruntland was asked to head the UN Commission which wrote the report Our Common Future introducing the concept of sustainable development. The report is commonly called the Bruntland Report in her honour.
At the risk of being crass, over-quoted, cheesy (or perhaps simply sounding like a commercial for contraceptives): the future is in our hands.
* Some would even say masses of tourists ruin the experience of visiting a site which should be explored reverently and not in large packs of screaming tourists with cameras. However, this is unavoidably the way the world works and particularly in light of the opening-up we are seeing of Asia which is leading to extensive travelling. Some would say that specialists should be grateful that there is so much interest in sites instead of complaining of the overburden of visitors. Both sides of the argument would be right.