WHAT’S THE STORY?

POSING as a benefactor, a serial killer is ripping the heart and soul out of communities worldwide.

The spectre stalks the planet turning whole cities into museums but its death warrant is disguised as a force for good.

Loading article content

The official title of the death warrant is World Heritage Status and the name of the killer is Unesco-cide.

At least that’s the theory of Italian writer Marco d’Eramo, who is railing against the “lethal” labelling which he says is killing communities that have hitherto survived war, earthquakes, flood and pestilence.

“Where life once throbbed … now you will find only ubiquitously similar snack bars and stalls selling quaint specialities and muslins, batiks and cottons, beach wraps and bracelets. What was once a bustling din of loud excitement is now all conveniently listed in travel brochures,” he said. D’Eramo concedes that the branding is made in good faith as an attempt to preserve historic sites but argues that it then attracts so many tourists that the unique culture of the designated site is destroyed.

His claim is one that has resonated across Europe this summer as places like Barcelona and Venice struggle to cope with the numbers of tourists attracted by their world heritage designations.

WHERE ELSE IS AFFECTED?

D’ERAMO gives as examples San Gimignano in Italy where the butchers, greengrocers and bakers that are still very much a part of many Italian communities are no longer to be found.

Instead, he said, “within the city walls, everything has become a set for medieval costume movies. The smaller the city the quicker its demise.” Or there is Luang Prabang in Laos whose historic centre is now a “tourist trap”, the houses turned into restaurants and hotels and the street market identical to others the world over.

A town of around 50,000 people, it is now swamped by nearly 700,000 tourists each year and a small piece of land worth £6000 three years ago now sells for £100,000.

Locals no longer live within the walls of what is officially described as the “best-preserved city” in Southeast Asia. Buddhist temples adorn this ancient seat of kings but most of the local people have been replaced by tourists and wealthy incomers.

“We have saved Luang Prabang’s buildings but we have lost its soul,” said former Unesco consultant Francis Engelmann.

The few locals that have remained complain of tourists’ rude behaviour. Despite warnings they should respect the local customs, some thrust cameras into the faces of monks as they go on their rounds. “This is a religious procession not Disneyland,” protested Prince Nithakhong Tiaoksomsanith, who is trying to preserve Luang Prabang’s artistic heritage.

IS IT ALL BAD?

WHILE the world heritage status has helped to preserve the buildings and brought increased income to some, it is now generally recognised that the monks, locals and tour operators were unprepared for the influx of tourists that the designation has brought.

“They say they have lost a sense of belonging to the community, a monastery and its ceremonies, a sense of pride in their old quarter,” said Engelmann. “It’s not easy to recreate the feeling of belonging to a real community.”

Luang’s problems are echoed in Malaysia’s George Town where the clan jetties have been awarded Unesco World Heritage Status.

The piers on Penang Island were once an industrious hub of fisherfolk, artisans and traders. Each family built their own sheds and houses on individual jetties that bore the name of their clan.

Seven made it through two world wars intact but the piers decayed as time passed and in order to save them from the wrecking ball of developers an appeal was made to Unesco. It succeeded in 2008 — too late for two of the jetties which were torn down to make way for housing — but the local population was ill-prepared for the tourist influx that followed.

WHAT HAPPENED?

SIGHTSEERS wander into homes uninvited, the jetties have been commercialised and people are being driven out because of the lack of privacy.

“I would like to remind people that we are not monkeys, and this is not a zoo,” said Lee Kah Lei, who lives on the Chew Jetty.

Gone are the oyster harvesters and other fisherfolk, replaced by souvenir sellers and purveyors of tat. On the bright side, the remaining residents acknowledge that the jetties would have been pulled down to make way for new developments had World Heritage Status not been granted.

“We would be gone today if not for the Unesco listing,” admitted Chew Siew Pheng, another Chew Jetty resident.

It is a problem that is difficult to overcome.

“It is an inevitable destiny: the very reasons why a property is chosen for inscription on the world heritage list are also the reasons why millions of tourists flock to those sites year after year,” said Francesco Bandarin, the former world heritage director at Unesco.

CAN ANYTHING HELP?

TOURISM can give a financial boost to struggling communities but without planning the cash cow can cause terrible damage.

“Communities impacted by tourism in Europe are now trying to fight back against the destructive effect of uncontrolled tourism. The impact in a third world country is likely to be more extreme,” said Jo Caust, of the University of Melbourne. “What is the motivation behind the development and the achievement of the status? Making more money or cultural heritage protection?”

Unesco is aware of the problem and has designated this year as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development but there appears to be no clear strategy in place.

“A balance needs to be struck between constructing and preserving,” said D’Eramo. “We want to live in cities that include museums and works of art, not in mausoleums with dormitory suburbs attached.

“It is an inhuman punishment to spend one’s life in the guest-quarters of an endless museum.”