There have been a number of recent media articles highlighting some of the more negative aspects that can result from a place being inscribed onto the World Heritage list. Luang Prabang in Laos was used as an example and it was pointed out that since inscription on the UNESCO WH list in 1995, visitor numbers have increased to over 500,000 annually, both local and international. Property prices have shot up and a lot of old buildings turned into new businesses opened to cater to the tourists. This was seen as a bad example of WH inscription as the town has lost some of its romantic and “off the beaten track “feel.
Visiting places off the beaten track was normally the prerogative of relatively wealthy (compared to the impoverished local residents) westerners who liked to travel to exotic places as part of their life’s passage. Westerners still visit Luang Prabang however, a large proportion of this new influx of visitors to it and other sites with a similar increased profile are local and regional tourists. The awareness and prestige created by the inscription has suddenly increased the relevance of these sites to national citizens who have discovered a new pride and appreciation of places often ignored and sometimes neglected.
Unsustainable tourism is a major problem around the world and not just with WH sites. Interesting and fascinating places worldwide have been “discovered” by travellers over many centuries and some visitors now hark back to the supposedly good old days when the places were seen as more exotic and lament it’s new found popularity “It is not as good as it once was. Too many tourists” say the tourists.
At least with World Heritage inscription, robust management plans should be put in place before sites are inscribed and the benefits to the local economy and an increased sense of ownership by local communities can be positive outcomes if properly managed.
Significant and interesting places always have been visited by appreciative travellers. The world is a different place now and global travel is not just the privilege of a few. The challenge is to manage the ever increasing numbers to protect and preserve both the site itself and the experience the visitors take away from it.