How can travel & tourism help save heritage sites from climate change?

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Travel & tour­ism and nat­ur­al and cul­tur­al her­it­age are often inter­de­pend­ent. So how should tour­ism respond to wor­ries that cli­mate change threatens her­it­age sites?

It’s a ques­tion posed by Kev­in Phun in this “Good Tour­ism” Insight.

Can tour­ism enable and enhance cli­mate change mit­ig­a­tion and adapt­a­tion meas­ures? Can tour­ist activ­it­ies help increase loc­al com­munit­ies’ resilience?

Glob­al warm­ing, and the asso­ci­ated sea-level rise, is threat­en­ing more and more her­it­age sites. We should pay atten­tion to how this has an effect on the cul­tur­al her­it­age of com­munit­ies liv­ing near these sites.

After a few dec­ades of talk­ing about sus­tain­able tour­ism, we are now see­ing men­tion of regen­er­at­ive travel, seen by some as ‘sus­tain­able tour­ism 2.0’.

It is time the tour­ism industry star­ted think­ing more ser­i­ously about the role tour­ism should (not just can) play in enabling the pre­ser­va­tion of cul­ture and her­it­age in places threatened by cli­mate change.

Global warming threatens heritage sites

Her­it­age sites, includ­ing UNESCO World Her­it­age Sites, are increas­ingly see­ing the effects of rising sea levels and oth­er symp­toms of glob­al warm­ing. Many of the world’s pre­cious cul­tur­al and nat­ur­al her­it­age sites are facing dam­age and destruc­tion.

In the Medi­ter­ranean region there are numer­ous UNESCO World Her­it­age Sites in low-lying coastal areas — such as the Vene­tian lagoon, the old city of Dubrovnik, and the ruins of Carthage — that are feel­ing the effects of cli­mate change; storm surges and coastal erosion due to sea-level rise.

The statues at East­er Island (Rapa Nui) in the south Pacific Ocean are also facing coastal erosion from rising sea levels.

In Egypt, warm­er tem­per­at­ures have res­ul­ted in cracks appear­ing on the facades of many ancient temples and graves, and also changes in the col­our of their stones.

Yel­low­stone Nation­al Park in the US has been exper­i­en­cing short­er win­ters with less snow­fall, warm­er rivers, shrink­ing lakes and wet­lands, and longer fire seasons.

Accord­ing to UNESCO, cli­mate change has become one of the most sig­ni­fic­ant threats to World Her­it­age Sites, includ­ing to their integ­rity and authenticity.

Why should tourism be concerned about losing heritage sites?

Many her­it­age sites have com­munit­ies liv­ing around or near them, which means that there are dec­ades, cen­tur­ies, even mil­len­nia of liv­ing cul­tur­al her­it­age at stake.

Cli­mate change risks can also be seen in eco­nom­ic terms. As the intan­gible value of sites’ nat­ur­al and/or cul­tur­al her­it­age erodes away, so does their poten­tial for tourism.

Some of these sites already derive sig­ni­fic­ant rev­en­ues from tour­ism. It’s often import­ant rev­en­ue too as it helps pay site main­ten­ance and con­ser­va­tion bills, as well as provides live­li­hoods for loc­al people.

Cultural heritage benefits from adaptation measures

In 2020, Seakamp and Jo stated that the increased vul­ner­ab­il­ity of her­it­age sites to cli­mate change has led her­it­age man­age­ment to focus on enabling a steady state to ensure the con­tinu­ity of val­ues asso­ci­ated with them.

Tan­gible and intan­gible cul­tur­al her­it­age can bene­fit from meas­ures that enhance resi­li­ence; for example, the devel­op­ment of prac­tices that help com­munit­ies stay togeth­er in the face of disaster.

Adapt­a­tion meas­ures need to com­ple­ment the cul­tur­al her­it­age of loc­al com­munit­ies; tour­ism activ­it­ies need to com­ple­ment and even enhance adapt­a­tion measures.

Intro­du­cing tour­ist activ­it­ies that can sup­port adapt­a­tion strategies and efforts to increase resi­li­ence is no easy thing. There has to be cooper­a­tion and part­ner­ship with loc­al com­munit­ies and affected stake­hold­ers to ensure that the adapt­a­tion strategies are spe­cif­ic to the needs of the com­munit­ies and can be eas­ily imple­men­ted by them.

Innovative tourism products can help safeguard heritage

As dis­cussed, com­munit­ies liv­ing near places threatened by cli­mate change and glob­al warm­ing increas­ingly find their cul­tur­al her­it­age at risk.

Intro­du­cing tour­ism into these places wherever pos­sible, in a con­trolled and man­aged way, can poten­tially con­trib­ute to the pre­ser­va­tion of cul­tur­al heritage.

How­ever, tour­ism activ­it­ies will have to change and evolve, as will the per­spect­ives of trav­el­lers. Tour­ism com­pan­ies will have to think how their activ­it­ies reflect cli­mate mit­ig­a­tion and adapt­a­tion meas­ures, and how com­munit­ies can influ­ence tour­ist activ­it­ies so that they sup­port mit­ig­a­tion and adaptation.

Com­munity-led mit­ig­a­tion and adapt­a­tion policies may lim­it the tour­ism products offered by tour com­pan­ies as well as vis­it­or numbers.

Tour oper­at­ors will need to change the way they think about their own tour­ism products; and should expect to see com­pet­it­ors innov­ate products that con­trib­ute more (and more dir­ectly) to com­munity devel­op­ment and oth­er goals.

Adapt­a­tion is loc­al. Tour­ism stake­hold­ers that oper­ate in more than one place will need to have loc­al­ised oper­a­tion­al modes that dif­fer from one place to anoth­er. This will expo­nen­tially increase the oper­a­tion­al com­plex­ity of lar­ger organisations.

The rise of regenerative tourism

Regen­er­at­ive tour­ism has emerged at a time when we seem to be ask­ing “sus­tain­able tour­ism now, but what next?”

The idea is timely; that tour­ists and their activ­it­ies, includ­ing how they spend their money and time, can be used to make places bet­ter than they were previously.

Thus the regen­er­a­tion of places, their cul­tur­al and nat­ur­al her­it­age included, through tour­ism is gain­ing ground in many places.

How should tourism destinations respond?

If it isn’t already, cli­mate resi­li­ence will soon be an imper­at­ive for tour­ism destinations.

We need des­tin­a­tion man­agers to:

  • Con­sider how tour­ism policies and cli­mate adapt­a­tion strategies can work togeth­er to help com­munit­ies bet­ter pre­serve cul­tur­al heritage;
  • Innov­ate tour­ism that can increase des­tin­a­tion and com­munity resi­li­ence; and
  • Encour­age tour­ism stake­hold­ers to col­lab­or­ate on activ­it­ies that reflect the future mit­ig­a­tion and adapt­a­tion needs of communities.

Loc­al needs, in terms of how com­munit­ies live their lives in light of cli­mate change risks, mit­ig­a­tion, and adapt­a­tion, must have a say in how tour­ism oper­ates. If neces­sary, they should feel empowered to place lim­its on what the industry can do.

If they are not already doing so, tour­ism des­tin­a­tion man­agers and all oth­er industry stake­hold­ers need to be ready and will­ing to work closely with those who live near the world’s most pre­cious nat­ur­al and cul­tur­al her­it­age areas.

About the author

Kevin Phun

Kev­in Phun is a spe­cial­ist in respons­ible tour­ism who com­bines tour­ism and sus­tain­able devel­op­ment know­ledge and expert­ise. He is the founder of the Centre for Respons­ible Tour­ism Singa­pore (CRTS) and can be reached at kevin[at]