Inclusion on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)'s World Heritage List is nothing to sniff at. In the simplest terms, it signals that a cultural or natural site — be it a Great Wall, a Grand Canyon or a pollution-stained mausoleum — is of "outstanding value to humanity."
Prestige aside, recognition as a World Heritage site is also often akin to hitting the tourism jackpot. This is particularly true for impoverished and developing parts of the world that are home to transcendent sites that, without the UNESCO stamp of approval, have remained overlooked, off-the-map — and vulnerable. In these areas, World Heritage status is viewed as a form of salvation.
Yet with this exalted lifeline, there's often a grave price to pay.
In an eye-opening (but not exactly revelatory) piece for the Guardian, Myanmar-based journalist Laignee Barron explores the double-edged sword of UNESCO World Heritage status. Barron uses the iconic Chinese Clan Jetties of Penang in George Town, Malaysia, as a shining example of a site that needed inclusion on the canonical list but is now suffering — and is entirely less authentic — because of it.
Not too long ago, visitors to Malaysia's Penang Island would have been hesitant to set foot on these over-water shantytowns built by seafaring Chinese migrant workers. They're now a popular tourist draw. (Photo: David Johnson/flickr)
Made up of ramshackle waterfront settlements named after various Chinese clans, the seven remaining jetties at Weld Quay — each lined with rustic wooden stilt-huts that have provided shelter to harbor workers and their extended families since the late 19th century — have long been under threat by encroaching development in Malaysia's bustling, second-biggest city.
Facing woefully limited options, preservation groups and owners of the jetties turned to UNESCO for protection in what Barron calls an "11th-hour bid." Two of the more dilapidated jetties were ultimately lost, razed to make way for sleek modern development. But in 2008, the over-water enclaves were spared and long-time residents were allowed to stay put within the newly minted World Heritage site.
The last-minute inclusion on the World Heritage List was a victory for George Town preservationists and an even bigger deal for those who would have been displaced by a culturally insensitive bulldozing spree.
"We would be gone today if not for the UNESCO listing," Chew Siew Pheng, a resident of the largest and most iconic jetty, Chew Jetty, tells the Guardian.
Food, architecture and medical tourism are top draws for visitors to George Town, Malaysia. The waterfront city was named a World Heritage site in 2008. (Photo: Marufish/flickr)
A tide of tourism washes in
Nearly a decade later, residents of the jetties don't necessarily regret the protections afforded by World Heritage status. However, many do wish things had turned out slightly differently given that the jetties are now a bull's-eye on the maps of most camera-wielding tourists. Simply, their home is being overrun.
Where fishermen, oyster harvesters and fortune tellers once plied their trade, souvenir vendors and snack bars have taken root. The locals say they were caught unaware by a tide of tourism that has washed over their stilt village.
While some residents are happy to take full advantage of the new economic perks, it would seem that their privacy has all but disappeared as a result.
"I would like to remind people that we are not monkeys, and this is not a zoo," says Lee Kah Lei, another Chew Jetty resident who bemoans a lack of respect from the hordes of tourists descending on the site, which prior to recognition from UNESCO was avoided by most visitors as it had the reputation as a "gambling-ridden, squatters' slum."
"Our jetty has become commercialised. People are moving. During the December holidays like Chinese New Year and Malay Raya, it's not even a place to live," adds Siew Pheng.
The road to Stonehenge: The English government wants to construct a tunnel under the prehistoric monument in order to free up traffic and, ostensibly, bring in more tourists. (Photo: Billie Charity/flickr)
When the very thing meant to protect also harms
Many living in and around other World Heritage sites have echoed those sentiments. This isn't to say that World Heritage list inclusion always results in a frenzy that detracts from a site's authenticity, destroys invaluable property or leads to other unsavory side effects. Most sites welcome the influx of tourism and handle it just fine.
Yet those impacted by a phenomenon that Italian writer Marco d'Eramo calls "UNESCO-cide" continue to struggle. One mentioned by the Guardian is Luang Prabang, an ancient, World Heritage-listed town in north-central Laos where the number of tourists far outweighs the native population and has put a strain on local resources. Transformed into a theme park without the requisite roller coasters, its magical luster has rubbed off somewhere in the madding crowds.
Also mentioned is Casco Viejo, Panama City's once-downtrodden historic quarter, where poorer residents have been forced out as wealthy tourists have poured in during the 10 years since the Panama district's World Heritage designation.
Writes Chloé Maurel for The Conversation: "It is now largely inhabited by rich foreigners who buy up the best colonial buildings to sell off in parcels. Tourism in Panama City has increased exponentially since the heritage listing, homogenising the urban landscape and exacerbating inequalities."
And then there's Venice, one of 53 Italian World Heritage sites — the most of any country — and a city rendered practically unlivable by mass tourism. Inscribed in 1987, it would be unfair to say that World Heritage status has forever changed Venice, a city literally sinking under the weight of its own popularity, for the worst. But it hasn't helped.
UNESCO has even threatened to yank Venice's status until Italian heritage officials get the situation under control and, more recently, floated the idea of placing Venice on its list of endangered sites unless steps are taken to limit the mega-cruise ships, which have been wreaking havoc on the environmentally fragile island-city. Fifty-four World Heritage sites, including numerous archeological sites in war-ravaged parts of the Middle East and the sea level rise-vulnerable Everglades National Park, currently appear on the "World Heritage in Danger" list.
While not directly displacing or harming local populations, one of the most iconic World Heritage sites, Stonehenge, risks having its status revoked due to a government-approved vehicular tunnel that's proposed to be constructed under the site. UNESCO and other groups believe such work would irrevocably damage the area around the enigmatic rock formation. Several organizations — including site manager Historic England — support the tunnel scheme, believing it will alleviate tourism-related gridlock in the pastoral English countryside.
Other sites ranging from Machu Piccu to Mont St. Michel have felt the strain of being identified by the U.N. as among the planet's most precious places.
Named a World Heritage Site in 2007, Casco Viejo in Panama City has been nicely spiffed up and preserved. Local residents, however, have been forced out in the process. (Photo: Geoff Sterns/flickr)
The balance between tourism and authenticity
Back on the island of Penang, those who fought for UNESCO protection in 2008 are left trying to figure out how to foster tourism without ruining things altogether.
Although UNESCO has deemed 2017 as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development, Clement Liang of the Penang Heritage Trust laments that the organization offers little guidance to local preservation groups on how to promote and implement sustainable tourism.
"Currently UNESCO has no clear guidelines or effective methods to control the commercialisation of world heritage sites, and its talk on sustainability is more a verbal exercise than enforceable," Liang says.
Liang goes on to note that the fate of the wood-planked jetties at Weld Quay lies largely in the hands of the residents. It's up to them to strike that elusive balance between accommodating an influx of tourists and maintaining a comfortable, culturally authentic home.
Some have found ways. One resident of Lim Jetty who makes his living as a paid tour guide, takes his groups only to the already over-commercialized Chew Jetty in hopes that his own community will remain off the beaten path. (Back in the day, the jetty clans frequently feuded. Today, a resident of one jetty leading a pack of tourists to a neighboring enclave wouldn't be considered much of a transgression.)
Acknowledging that her own community is well past the point of return in terms of commercialization, Chew Jetty resident Siew Pheng thinks that an entrance fee, which would deter tight-fisted visitors while helping residents pay for the maintenance and upkeep of the site, would be a fine idea.
"Only we can preserve this place. We have to decide now how to manage it," she says.