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Places categorised as UNESCO's World Heritage Sites are subject to immense tourism: what is the effect?

As Unesco celebrates the 30th anniversary of the World Heritage Convention, this book analyses the effects of its policies in developing countries

If you run your eye down Unesco’s list of world heritage sites you will discover that more than 100 historic cities and about 200 sacred sites are located in developing countries. The Unesco label certainly generates tourism, but this in itself creates both problems and responsibilities with it, and demonstrates just how tricky it is for places to develop.

The question that looms is: is it possible to provide resources from outside which will bring sustainable growth to the local economy without distorting the local culture?

The pitfalls are many. They include the rights and aspirations of the residents who must cope with the effects of sometimes disorderly, unplanned urbanisation; the impact of tourism on the economy and on productive activity; the ways in which tourism affects the sense of belonging and the identity of the local community; and the exploiting of human resources.

Culture is a value and an end in itself, and as such is to be preserved. Nevertheless, one must make some attempt to show, and possibly to measure, the benefits, material and immaterial, which are derived from its protection and exploitation.

Historic cities and sacred sites: cultural roots for urban futures, recently published by the World Bank, looks at these issues. The book is inspired by a philosophy which sets out to integrate the problems of this particular economic development with broader perspectives which take into account a complex range of variables.

The format of the book is a succession of questions and answers, identifying and analysing a series of related problems (support for the cultural identity; the differences between Christian, Jewish and Muslim institutions; culture in a multi-ethnic society; the problems arising from the re-use of monuments), and providing tentative solutions by examining specific examples, ranging from the Basilica in Assisi to the Chinese city of Lijiang, from the Mexican centres of Tampico and Tlacoltapan to the Pantanal of Brazil.

The readership for this book is public administrators, managers of culture and experts in various fields working in the cultural sector, and it specifically demonstrates how what is generally assumed can be realised, namely that cultural heritage is a genuine capital asset that can generate considerable profit over a long period.

This can be brought about if the tactics adopted manage to overcome the traditional conflict between private and public, between economic development and social welfare. The authors remind us that local resources must be used to gain increasing technical and managerial independence, and that a clear perception of the aims and objectives, of the ultimate beneficiaries of cultural exploitation, is essential.

There emerges a divergence between between affirmations of principle (necessary and typical of an international body such as Unesco, but not effective) and actual operating strategies (which depend on the decisions of the World Bank and of the governments financing the programmes supporting the cultural heritage of developing countries). The gap needs to be narrowed and there needs to be proof that poverty is actually being reduced where the action is taking place.

The problems dealt with are extremely delicate and have to be handled with an exceptional degree of co-operation and planning by bodies with often widely differing purposes and resources, and with differing temporal aims and economic capabilities. This is one of the challenging fields in which finely tuned methods of intervention have to be employed with flexibility and precision to address complex and ever-changing needs.

Also to be born in mind is that the delicacy of a situation increases uncontrollably when varied and sometimes mutually incompatible problems arise. This book provides a careful, perceptive list of these dilemmas: the progress from the conservation of religious sites to the planning of the management of the cultural heritage; the need for consistency in the reconstruction, transformation and adaptation of monuments; the problems connected with supervising and evaluating cultural capital; and the preservation of cultural roots.

The authors point out that more than one lesson can be drawn from the aims of cultural heritage management in the more advanced countries, where the need for sustainable, compatible growth of culture is no less important, but may, nonetheless, be (wrongly) perceived as being less serious.

o Ismail Serageldin, Ephi Shluger and Joan Martin-Brown, Historic cities and sacred sites: cultural roots for urban futures (The World Bank, Washington DC, 2001), 440 pp, $40 (hb) ISBN 082134904X

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The trouble with tourists'