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Dangerous tourism

Residents of the city of Izamal in Mexico want to manage the world's cultural heritage. It can cost them dearly. It's a good thing to end up on UNESCO's World Heritage list. It can also destroy some of the world's most beautiful scenery and cultural heritage.


[unesco] There is a small market right next to a quiet square in the historic center of the city of Izamal, Mexico. It is across the street from a Franciscan monastery, built in 1561 atop a Mayan pyramid. The pointed arches are painted golden yellow, like all other colonial buildings in the city, and cheap t-shirts adorn the brick walls. Right next door, an older woman sells the fruits of avocado and chirimoya.

Close your eyes half and imagine another future for this small Yucatán town. The T-shirts are delicate and overpriced, with designs from Izamal. The older woman is still there, but sells souvenirs to tourists who have just been touring the pyramid or the monastery. Then they will move on to picturesque hotels that do not yet exist.

Diluted meaning

If the municipal authorities get what they want, Izamal, or at least the monastery, will be appointed to the World Heritage site number eight hundred and something. This will ensure this scenario in the future.

The term "world heritage" has been widely used by travel agencies and is increasingly appearing on tourism websites. It is no coincidence: Unesco – the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization – has consistently added sites to its World Heritage List. Originally, twelve sites were selected in 1978. Today, there are 812, and the list includes everything from the Statue of Liberty, the Taj Mahal and Angkor Wat to wooden churches in Poland and cultural landscapes in Mongolia.

As the list expands, many have begun to wonder: Will rapid growth dilute the importance of the list? And since these appointments attract both tourism and development to an uncontrolled degree, will the honor hurt these areas as much as they benefit them?

Although Mexico spends more resources on World Heritage projects than many other countries, the Yucatan is a good example of what can happen to an area after it is added to the list. Mexico's most distinctive area is probably the Mayan city of Chichen Itza, which was already flooded with tourists. The number of tourists increased after the appointment – to 5000 visitors every day during the high season, according to statistics from local authorities.

Standing in front of Chichen Itza's iconic Kukulcan Pyramid is of course still a grand experience, but the sight of the queue of tour buses spewing out American tourists outside is about as remarkable. Visitors have the bus identification number written on the marks pasted to the shirt, and cheerful gaides with pre-written manuscripts shepherd them through the gate, where they receive official entrance bracelets. Inside the gate you meet driven souvenir sellers. One of the regulars, Ermenegildo Kahum Kem, can say "Something to your mother-in-law?" In five different languages.


In principle, UNESCO's intention was simple: In 1972, a World Heritage Convention was adopted, which was to preserve cultural heritage and conservation areas of "outstanding universal value". The convention established a World Heritage Committee, a rolling nation of 21 nations, and a World Heritage Fund to keep track of, provide technical assistance and provide loans. The Paris World Heritage Center oversees the program, and the Committee annually appoints new sites.

By the way, it has become obvious that for many of the areas, getting on the list has been more of a goal in itself than the start of a protection effort. Once the four to five year nomination process is over, Unesco does not usually provide funds or technical assistance from its 35-member group, and there is no regular monitoring to ensure that the ambitious plans are implemented.

"The countries realized that even though there was no money from Unesco, they achieved fame, and fame brings tourism," said Bonnie Burnham, head of the American World Monuments Fund, a non-governmental organization that helps with restoration and preservation. of historical sites.

- It is no secret that this is one of the main reasons for being included in the list of world heritage sites.

- The moment an area is added to the list, it is included in the travel guides, says Jeff Morgan, CEO of the Global Heritage Fund, a group that has its own, smaller list and runs restoration projects in developing countries.

- The list has no significance when it comes to conservation.

New areas

Morgan says his group has been working in Lijang, China, to preserve the ancient houses and culture of the Naxi people, and that immediately after the nomination for the list in 1997, the place was besieged by development.

- They had no zoning plans for the area, Morgan says.

- Suddenly the first tourist hotels stood there. Soon there was so much construction that the place no longer has any interest.

- We do not consider the World Heritage List as a means to increase tourism, says Alessandro Balsamo, who monitors the selection process.

- It is intended to preserve a special area for future generations, and to give the current member state funds, through international cooperation, to preserve the places.

Balsamo questions how effectively the World Heritage Center can monitor the ever-growing list, not to mention providing technical assistance, with an annual operating budget of $ 812 million. The organization doesn't even have an updated list of contacts for all XNUMX locations, he says.

The first step would, of course, be to stop the appointment of new areas. 24 new areas were added this summer, including the Ottoman city of Gjirokastra in Albania and the Shiretoko Peninsula in Japan.

Diplomats in the World Heritage Committee want to get their own countries' proposals on the list and just won't agree to such a thing, according to Francisco Javier Lopez Morales. Until recently, he led the Mexican government's World Heritage Program.

- From a realistic, pragmatic point of view, I can not imagine the possibility that the number of annual appointments could be reduced, he says.

In Mexico, Chichen Itza appears to be under control and adequately staffed, which is more than can be said about many other areas of the world. Titi Dupret, a Belgian who, along with his wife, has photographed around 120 World Heritage Sites for his website,, has been shaken on his trips around Asia.

- I have seen so many places that use the "world heritage" label as an advertising poster. Not before they have received the logo, before they double the entrance fee and build an airport right next door, he says.

Dupret remembers how appalled he was at what had happened to Jiushaigou Valley, a nature reserve in Sichuan Province, China.

- The whole valley was destroyed by mass tourism.

No place has ever been removed from the list, although warnings have been sent to some of them, including the Galapagos Islands.

On the map

At the World Heritage Committee's annual conference in December 1999, the historic fortress town of Campeche was named. It is a beautiful colonial city, a few hours southwest of Izamal. The news was greeted with great pleasure by the citizens, who gathered in the streets, honed with horns and waved the Mexican flag.

Campeche was in a financial backdrop for years before the state and local authorities launched a nomination campaign that included everything from attracting conferences for conservators to building networks of UNESCO staff, and refurbishing historic facades.

Although the initiators were completely in agreement with UNESCO's intention, the main motive was clearly economic.

- My thought was that Campeche, in order to attract the tourism it deserved, had to become internationally known, says Jaime Ruiz, one of the main architects behind the process.

According to government figures, the visit to Campeche has increased every single year since the nomination, with an increase of 39 percent from 1999 to 2004.

For now, Campeche still seems authentic. Even what looks like tourist shops – those that sell t-shirts, guayabera shirts and jewelry – attract local customers.

The nominations of Calakmul in 2002 literally put the place on the map. In the 2000 edition of Lonely Planet's Yucatan gaid, the overview map shows 14 peninsulas on the peninsula, and Calakmul is not among them. In the 2003 edition, however, Edzna and Tulum, two ruins that are not on the World Heritage list, were removed. Calakmul was there instead.

© 2006 New York Times News Service

Translated by Anne Arneberg

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