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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 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]crts.asia.