Mechtild Rössler is the Director of the Unesco World Heritage Centre and the Secretary of the 1972 World Heritage Convention, based in Paris. She is a cultural geographer with a PHD in natural sciences, covering natural and cultural heritage. Click. spoke with her about sustainability, overtourism and how World Heritage designation can benefit hoteliers.
Click.: Mechtild, what exacty is Unesco?
Rössler: Unesco is a specialised UN agency in the fields of education, science and culture. It has six cultural heritage conventions of which the World Heritage Convention is the best-known and most universal with 193 countries having ratified it.
Some of the newest sites to be accredited include modern heritage buildings by Frank Lloyd Wright such as the Guggenheim in New York, while in the UK the Jodrell Bank Observatory has been listed too. In China, a site critically important for migratory birds has been included, the Migratory Bird Sanctuaries along the Coast of Yellow Sea-Bohai Gulf in China.
Click.: Heritage sites and travel have a symbiotic relationship. What do you think are some of the obvious and less obvious benefits that can accrue?
Rössler: In terms of tourism, World Heritage has been a real success story. Many of the top tourist destinations around the globe are World Heritage sites so the main benefits are the contributions tourism makes to local economic development, which is quite obvious. But less obvious effects include sharing and experiencing different cultures, which fosters dialogue and international cooperation. This should not be underestimated. Something that we need to recognise more is the contribution that tourism makes to the conservation of heritage sites. Many tourists are very willing to help with this.
Click.: Some have accused Unesco of in some ways aiding overtourism by highlighting heritage sites - do you think this is fair?
Rössler: Unesco does not choose a World Heritage site, local and national authorities prepare the nominations in the first place. World Heritage designation often leads to an increase in tourism and visitor numbers at those sites which have been newly inscribed. For example, in France, at Le Havre and Lyon there was an increase of about 25% [in visitor numbers] in one year after their inscription. And in Japan, we had a small, previously not well-known site, the Tomioka Silk Mill, where visitor numbers increased 200%, but that was from an extremely low base.
This is not across the board and not necessarily sustained over time. Now, iconic sites such as Venice, Dubrovnik or Barcelona or the Eiffel Tower in Paris have high visitor numbers which may be less due to World Heritage status than to marketing, promotion, low-cost airfares and increase in visitors from countries where previously not many people travelled internationally, such as China. So, I think you have to look very closely at each site individually to see where these issues lie.
Click.: How do you think the balance can best be struck between welcoming more visitors and ensuring that sites are respected?
Rössler: World Heritage sites need to prepare in-depth assessments to understand tourism management better and adapt to trends better. Management plans and strategies have to be developed. Such a process needs to be participatory and involve all the stakeholders. That means everyone from local communities to management authorities as well as tourism bodies and the private sector. There needs to be more focused marketing to encourage visitors to stay longer at these destinations, and to get much more experience of local culture and support creative industries such as handicrafts.
We also need to educate guests much better to respect local cultures and to ensure that their behaviour does not have a negative impact.
Click.: Are there any guidelines you can suggest for accommodation providers that are located close to a World Heritage site around how they can use the Unesco landmark as an incentive without fuelling overtourism?
Rössler: Hoteliers are critical when it comes to educating guests in their behaviour and in deepening guests’ appreciation of nearby World Heritage sites. They can also disperse visitors by providing information on all the attractions at their destination. For example, in Pisa, everyone wants to go to the Leaning Tower but there are lots of other parts of the city which are very interesting. So, hoteliers need to show them where those other parts are. The industry has an important role in ensuring that heritage is protected and that sites are properly managed. It just makes good business sense.
Click.: Is tourism dispersal something that impacts a decision on whether or not to grant heritage status?
Rössler: No, not directly. Every World Heritage nomination needs to submit a detailed management plan. We encourage sites to develop a visitor management plan and a conservation management strategy that addresses the issues of dispersal and to guide tourists to different attractions. We have developed a visitor management assessment tool on our website to help set a baseline for sustainable tourism, which I think is a crucial issue. We’ve also developed guides on sustainable tourism strategy so I think local authorities are much better equipped. I’d really encourage the hospitality industry to really use these tools and to work with Unesco which would benefit all involved.
- Unesco World Heritage sites are landmarks or areas legally protected by international treaties for their cultural, historical, scientific or other form of significance
- Unesco doesn’t identify a World Heritage site, it is first the local and national authorities who prepare the nominations
- High visitor numbers may be less due to World Heritage designation than factors such as marketing, low-cost airfares and an increase in visitors from emerging markets
- The effects of World Heritage designation include sharing and experiencing different cultures, which fosters dialogue and international cooperation
- Hoteliers are critical when it comes to educating guests in their behaviour and in deepening guests’ appreciation of World Heritage sites