Blog Post

Reconciling the Current and Future Challenges of Imbalanced Tourism at Heritage Sites

The World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) indicated in its World Tourism Barometer in November 2021 that international arrivals are 76% below pre-pandemic levels and recovery results across the globe remain uneven. UNESCO reported that COVID-19 negatively impacted 78% of World Heritage sites and the communities living in and around them, resulting in an overall 66% drop in visitors in 2020.

These are challenging times for cultural heritage destinations, many of which are dealing with what World Monuments Fund refers to as imbalanced tourism—framed as unsustainable visitation that results in cultural heritage sites either overrun by visitors or left without the minimal level of visitation to support operations.

However, the trending concept of tourism recovery is missing the opportunity of this lull in global travel for the rejuvenation and reorientation of how local communities can actually generate more tourism benefits. From another imbalanced standpoint, this also signifies these residents’ desire for a more prominent say in the narrative and representation of their respective locales.

This year’s Watch panel had to take both COVID-19’s impacts on sites and their destination planning and management challenges into consideration. Seven of WMF’s 25 selected sites had identified tourism as the principal feature that was either overwhelming their destinations, or needed to be introduced in a planned, thoughtful manner.

Africatown, in Mobile, Alabama, wants to reassert itself to visitors as a community worth saving and commemorating in the face of current transportation development and environmental health challenges. Others, like Lamanai’s fragile archaeological sites in Belize; China’s Fortified Manors of Yongtai; the Yanacancha-Huaquis Cultural Landscape of Peru; Egypt’s underappreciated historic temples and burial sites of Abydos; and Monte Alegre State Park in Brazil’s Amazonia region, have local residents and authorities eager to expand tourism, but are wary of impacts on local traditions, customs, and ownership. Conversely, Teotihuacan, located on Mexico City’s perimeter, is a classic case of overtourism, potentially worsened by the new international airport being built 15 kilometers away.

These nominations are intended in part to acknowledge the role that tourism can play in benefiting and revitalizing supporting communities. The challenge in garnering this Watch status is to now find the path towards establishing a trajectory that can actually support and sustain them.

This article first appeared in the 2022 Watch Magazine.