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Heritage sites preserve past, build the future

By Shahbaz Khan | chinadaily.com.cn | Updated: 2023-08-07 14:45


There are 1,157 World Heritage properties in 167 countries as of July 2023, and a great many of them are tourist destinations. World Heritage sites are recognized for their outstanding value to all humanity; they also create jobs, generate incomes, support local activities through art and craft, and can foster sustainable tourism. The relationship between World Heritage and tourism is a two-way affair: World Heritage properties are major tourist attractions and the tourism sector has the ability to "present" World Heritage to the public and to help create greater awareness among communities about their importance and realize their economic benefits.

In our ever-evolving and expanding world, the dramatic surge in international and domestic travel poses both opportunities and challenges for World Heritage sites and the communities residing around them. As the pace of change accelerates, the impact of this trend on these iconic locations and the people who live near them becomes increasingly significant.

The promotion of tourism, visitor engagement and cultural interchange can bring a range of positive benefits to a World Heritage site, contributing to its preservation, and education and research on it, promotes infrastructure development and supports the well-being of the local community while raising global awareness of its importance. World Heritage sites often host unique cultural assets and fragile ecosystems, and their global recognition and popularity can also expose them to a range of threats, including over-tourism, pollution, degradation of the site's integrity and authenticity, and even illegal trade in cultural artifacts.

Without proper management and sustainable practices, the threats posed by the fast-growing tourism industry risk causing irreversible damage to the sites' unique values. This makes it clear that the balance between accessibility and conservation can be maintained only through sustainable tourism.

Sustainable tourism seeks to create a harmonious relationship between visitors, the environment, and the local community. It serves as a lifeline for World Heritage sites, mitigating the negative impacts that conventional tourism can have on these cherished properties. To ensure sustainable and responsible tourism development, as well as properly manage the flow of visitors, it is imperative that site the managements of such sites effectively collaborate with all related public agencies.

The UNESCO World Heritage and Sustainable Tourism Programme has introduced a fresh approach centered on dialogue and collaborative efforts among stakeholders. The approach is aimed at integrating tourism planning and heritage management at the destination level, valuing and safeguarding natural and cultural assets while fostering responsible tourism development.

By establishing an international framework for cooperation, the UNESCO program facilitates coordinated efforts across sectors to preserve heritage and foster sustainable economic development. Such a cooperative commitment and coordination are vital to maintaining the integrity and significance of these unique natural and cultural wonders which represent our past, our journey to the present, and belong to all of us.

China, with its ancient history and diverse cultural heritage, is a treasure trove of UNESCO World Heritage sites. From the Great Wall to Mount Huangshan in Anhui province and the Jiuzhaigou Nature Reserve in Sichuan province to the Mogao Grottoes in Gansu province, these sites not only hold immense historical, cultural and natural significance but also attract millions of tourists from around the world.

Many of China's World Heritage sites are nestled within delicate ecosystems that are vulnerable to environmental threats. Threats such as pollution of natural resources to deforestation can be further escalated due to poorly managed tourism, which can create significant hazards to the sites as well as their surroundings.

To help improve development management practices UNESCO Beijing Office, in collaboration with the World Bank and the Gansu provincial government, are working together to enhance capacity building in local communities through sustainable tourism initiatives, strengthen their resilience and safeguard the heritage sites in Gansu.

By fostering creativity, emphasizing the importance of local cultures and focusing on visitor management and cultural route creation, the joint efforts will help establish synergy between World Heritage protection and sustainable tourism, showcasing how embracing these principles can better protect China's cultural riches for future generations while bolstering the tourism industry in a sustainable and responsible manner.

UNESCO is making efforts to determine the impacts of tourism on World Heritage sites and find ways to better protect the World Heritage properties. The primary goal of the UNESCO 1972 Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage is to identify, protect, conserve, present and transmit the cultural and natural heritage of outstanding universal values of the World Heritage sites to future generations.

The success of implementing the convention's objectives at every site relies on how the World Heritage community responds to the opportunities and challenges presented by tourism. The convention embraces the concept of "sustainable development", in this context, tourism, and along with the tourism industry, collaborates with relevant agencies, conservation bodies and local communities responsible for safeguarding cultural and natural heritage. Together, they can play a pivotal role in helping achieve this essential goal of sustainable development.

World Heritage sites are the embodiment of shared human heritage, representing a link between the past, present and the future. Every World Heritage site has its unique sustainable tourism capacity which needs to be carefully assessed, for which sustainable tourism plans must be devised by carefully designing responsible travel practices in partnership with the local communities.

By preserving the natural and cultural assets will not only protect our shared heritage but also build a more sustainable and compassionate future for the planet.

Prof. Shahbaz Khan, Director of UNESCO Multisectoral Regional Office for East Asia and UNESCO Representative to the People‘s Republic of China, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Japan, Mongolia and the Republic of Korea. The views don't necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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