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MEA Bulletin

Guest Article

14 September 2006


By Art Pedersen, UNESCO World Heritage Centre, Salamat Ali Tabbasum, UNESCO World Heritage Centre, and Makiko Yashiro, UNEP1


Eight hundred twelve properties worldwide are listed as World Heritage Sites, with 628 cultural, 160 natural and 24 mixed properties in 137 countries. Although the number of natural sites is still limited compared to cultural sites, it is estimated that the number will increase in the future. Furthermore, many of the cultural sites often contain rich ecosystems within their boundaries. Some of the sites are adjacent to nature reserves, requiring careful management and full attention to the protection of natural habitats and biodiversity within and around the sites. Thus, there is a need to manage World Heritage sites by highlighting both cultural and natural values and their inter-relationships, and promoting coordination among different stakeholders involved in their management.

Properties that gain World Heritage status are usually already tourist attractions or may receive more visitors after being given World Heritage status. At a number of popular sites, tourism pressures can result in the difficult issue of maintaining access for the public while also implementing measures that retain its World Heritage values. Tourism is one of the world’s largest industries, growing at a significant pace. According to estimates by the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), in 2004, there were 763 million international tourists, with an expected rise to 1.56 billion by the year 2020.2 To meet these needs, processes and policies associated with sustainable tourism offer a direction in which the conflicting objectives of site and biodiversity conservation versus access attempt to balance the increasing number of visitors.

The importance of tourism is highlighted under not only the World Heritage Convention, but also other biodiversity related conventions, such as the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the Ramsar Contention on Wetlands, and the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS), through the adoption of guidelines focused on tourism as a means to support the implementation of agreements. The importance of strengthening the coherence, synergies and coordination among different international instruments and stakeholders involved in the management of the World Natural Heritage properties is another issue that has been addressed in international discussions and reflected in various decisions and guidelines. For example, the operational guidelines for the implementation of the World Heritage Convention (2005) call for the close coordination and information sharing between the World Heritage Convention and other conventions, programmes and international organizations related to the conservation of cultural and natural heritage and biodiversity protection.

Issues Faced in Promoting Sustainable Tourism

Due to the importance of tourism, both as an opportunity and as a threat, the UNESCO World Heritage Sustainable Tourism Programme was created in 2001. Since then, a series of initiatives has been undertaken by the Programme to assist the World Heritage Committee and site managers promote tourism as a positive force to retain World Heritage site values, and to help mitigate various threats to the sites. The Programme has also facilitated linkages between the key actors involved in the initiatives. Furthermore, various tourism-related projects have sought to build site staff capacity, train local people in skills to enter the tourism industry, build awareness of local communities through conservation campaigns, and involve the tourism industry in these efforts.

While a lot has been achieved in promoting sustainable tourism, many challenges remain. Few sites have established policies regarding management planning. Systems to increase revenue from visitor fees, concessions or donations generated by the tourism industry to fund operating costs and support monitoring, education and conservation programmes all need further investigation. Furthermore, there is a lack of data and trained personnel to manage tourism effectively, such as the monitoring of visitor numbers, preferences and impacts. Some of the main issues identified through the work undertaken by the Programme are summarized below, with recommended future actions:

1. Site Management

Few World Heritage sites have tourism/public use plans that provide baseline data or a global vision on how tourism will be developed and managed. Few sites, particularly in developing countries, have plans to govern public use. Therefore, there is a critical need to first carry out site analysis, to determine how tourism could be utilized to contribute to the mitigation of various pressures at the sites. When conducting analysis, administrative and institutional pressures at the site should also be assessed, as they are also critical components in ensuring successful management. The development of a public use plan for each site, providing baseline data and a global vision of how tourism will be managed, would greatly support decision making related to site management.

2. Role of Communities

Challenges exist in generating economic benefits to communities as an alternative income source to help mitigate threats to the sites. In particular, generating support for tourism enterprises owned and operated by local communities is needed to contribute to sustaining their livelihoods. When promoting such efforts, it is critical to develop community based tourism enterprises, train local entrepreneurs, and support the development of quality local products desired by tourists.

3. Connection with Tourism Industry

Engaging the tourism industry in efforts related to site protection and local community development has proven to be a challenge. In order to promote further tourism industry involvement, there is a need to establish effective systems that bring capital to local communities through promoting local products. An active role of key international organizations, such as the UN, in approaching company executives to encourage their involvement should also be promoted. The involvement and support of the tourism industry in site protection and local community development needs to be publicized through various information and media networks, to allow them to gain international recognition.

4. Awareness Raising and Information Dissemination

Building the tourism industry’s awareness of World Heritage and its related policies and activities is critical. Raising visitors’ awareness on the importance of safeguarding World Heritage sites can help when mitigating problems caused by tourism, and when generating people’s support for conservation efforts. In addition, sharing information between sites, on efforts made and lessons learned, is critical when promoting collaborative efforts among neighboring sites and protected areas.  

Future Steps

Addressing the above listed challenges is critical for the successful promotion of sustainable tourism as an effective means to conserve the World Heritage sites and biodiversity, while maintaining access and providing opportunities for visitors to enjoy the World Heritage values. A series of proposed actions will address these challenges. Firstly, it is critical to enhance the site management capacity, for example, through more active implementation of public use plans at the sites, and the training of public use coordinators at the sites who can act as focal points for site tourism management and coordination. The development of pilot projects on site concession policies, as well as the use of World Heritage sites as regional learning platforms on management- and tourism-related economic activities at the community level are also proposed as effective approaches. Secondly, the engagement of different stakeholders is critical when promoting sustainable tourism initiatives. The engagement of the tourism industry will help when addressing visitor management issues, promoting local products, and building awareness among its clients of the fragility of natural and cultural heritage. Engaging other conventions and organizations to adopt similar processes when using tourism to help mitigate threats to conservation is also important.

Promoting the coherence and collaboration among the World Heritage Convention and other biodiversity-related conventions, programmes and organizations is also critical for the successful conservation of cultural and natural heritage sites, and the protection of biodiversity. Until now, a series of efforts has been made at the international level, such as the establishment of the Liaison Group of the Biodiversity-related Conventions, in which secretariats of five major biodiversity-related conventions, including the World Heritage Convention and CBD, participate to share experiences, identify programmatic synergies between the conventions and discuss modalities of enhanced collaboration. The Group has launched various collaborative initiatives to achieve the 2010 biodiversity target, and to promote harmonization of national reporting. In addition, a number of Memoranda of Cooperation and Understanding, as well as joint work programmes and plans, have been established among biodiversity related conventions. These collaborative efforts should be further promoted, accompanied by concerted efforts at the national level and backing from all government ministries and other stakeholders involved in tourism, environment, culture, economic development, and other fields related to the management of world heritage sites and biodiversity conservation.

For further information, please visit: http://whc.unesco.org/

1 The author was previously with the United Nations University (UNU), before joining the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in February 2006. This paper was prepared based on issues discussed during the training programme on “Linking Biodiversity Conservation and Sustainable Tourism at World Heritage Sites in South Asia," organized by UNESCO, UNU and the University of Peradeniya and other regional organizations in Sri Lanka, 24-30 April 2005 (see http://geic.hq.unu.edu/ for information about the workshop), as well as the work undertaken by the UNESCO World Heritage Centre, Sustainable Tourism Programme (see http://whc.unesco.org/ for information about the programme).

2 UNWTO, “Tourism Highlights 2005,” available at: http://www.world-tourism.org/statistics/index.htm

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