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World Heritage: spreading the love

Mark Frary

November 20, 2017

Travel influencers have a key role to play in helping World Heritage sites safe from overtourism, according to a flagship session at World Travel Market in London in early November.

A session entitled World Heritage: the social media and marketing challenge, part of the WTM Travel Perspective stream on the event’s prestigious Global Stage, brought together Peter DeBrine, UNESCO’s senior project officer for the World Heritage and Sustainable Tourism programme; James Rebanks, Britain’s best known shepherd (with 100,000 Twitter followers) and author of A Shepherd’s Life, who recently helped the English Lake District win World Heritage status; Carlo Caroppo, social media manager for Pugliapromozione; Josef Ciglansky, social media manager for Czech Tourism and Gary Arndt, a blogger who, at last count, had visited 342 World Heritage sites.

UNESCO’s Peter Debrine set the scene explaining that the common thread linking the more than 1,000 sites inscribed on the World Heritage list was something known as “outstanding universal value”.

“This manifests itself in different ways. Some World Heritage sites are extraordinarily beautiful, others are industrial processes or engineering achievements. World Heritage is not necessarily a beauty contest,” said Debrine.

“Another thing in common for most World Heritage sites is tourism and now they are becoming more popular than ever and some are being overwhelmed.”

“We have a new concept called overtourism and how that is impacting World Heritage sites is an important concern for UNESCO. We believe fundamentally that tourism should enhance this value not detract from it.”

One worrying trend is an increasing backlash against tourists. “You are seeing in Barcelona and Venice that communities are pushing back against tourism. You have graffiti scrawled saying ‘Tourists go home!’. That is in no-one’s best interests.”

James Rebanks, a shepherd whose family has been in farming in the Lake District for six centuries, is a passionate supporter of cultural landscapes and works with UNESCO in this area. He said site managers and marketers need to take a hard look at how they promote sites.

“When I started looking at this there was a small number of sites doing what’s called placemaking, which includes social and economic regeneration. If you take somewhere like the Lake District or some of the vineyard World Heritage sites, [UNESCO is] telling you that they’re really special because of the kind of agriculture. That raises a big problem – how do you keep that alive?” he said.

He added, “Look at the rice terraces in the Philippines. The truth is we live in a highly globalised industrial world with cheap food and if we don’t do things to protect those cultural landscapes particularly the economics of them then they’re going to disappear. That’s just as true of the rice terraces in the Philippines as it is of some of the Italian cultural landscapes as it is of the Lake District. It’s very useful to have the world endorse the specialness of the place but really it is just the start of the process. If you want to keep a historic economic system alive you need to have some pretty radical and progressive ideas about how you’re going to do that,” he said.

Carlo Caroppo of Puglia said social media can help tell deeper stories surrounding World Heritage Sites.

Speaking of the famous conical houses of Alberobello, which are just one of a vast number of UNESCO World Heritage sites in Italy, he said,

“It’s a very beautiful landscape but probably what many tourists that get there do not know is that the whole area is full of these buildings. You can drive people through Twitter or Instagram or Facebook to find out more about the destination and find out how people built these houses, how they lived there and what they do now.”

Joseph Ciglansky, social media manager for Czech Tourism, also sees a strong role for influencers and social media.

“65 to 70% of tourists coming to Czech Republic stay in Prague and they don’t travel around the country. We have 12 UNESCO sites in the Czech Republic and 11 of them aren’t in Prague,” he said.

“Right now as a national tourist board we are shifting to using social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and through the use of influencers we are trying to encourage tourists to explore different regions. Last year we did a project with US bloggers focused on sustainable tourism and they went to the regions,” he added.

Turning to overtourism, blogger and photographer Gary Arndt said, “The biggest problem is that there are only so many places in the popular consciousness so when someone wants to go on holiday they’re thinking the canals of Venice, the Eiffel Towers and the Big Bens and they don’t know of anything else. I recently read an interview with the person who runs the Louvre who said 80% of the visitors to the Louvre go to see the Mona Lisa and leave.”

“A twenty-minute train ride from Venice is the city of Padua – it has the
oldest botanical garden in the world, it has the Scrovegni Chapel which will soon be a World Heritage Site and has one of the largest public squares in Europe and a fantastic cathedral and everyone ignores it because they want to go to Venice and so it’s just a matter of raising the awareness,” said Arndt, who strongly believes that social media has a role to play in avoiding overtourism.

Ardnt also believes that destinations should no rush to inscribe more sites on the UNESCO list.

“All of the big iconic places – the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal, the Pyramids – those
were the early ones and now the average person if they were to look at the latest list of World Heritage sites they would say I have no idea what this is. There is a dilution that’s happening, especially in Europe, because there are so many medieval towns other things like that. I think there needs to be more promotion of what exists rather than more and more countries just continually trying to get another World Heritage Site every year.”

One of Arndt’s ideas is a passport programme.

“I’ve told countries that I’ve worked with to do something to link their sites together I know in the United States the National system has a passport you can buy it and you go to every park and you get a sticker and so a lot of people they’ll buy passports for their kids and they go out of their way to visit a national park,” he said.

Peter Debrine unescoSomething like this is on its way, said UNESCO’s Peter Debrine (pictured right).

“With the support of the European Union we’re developing an online platform in partnership with National Geographic to see if we can make this kind of an impact. The idea is to inspire people to travel differently and travel deeper and to discover the hidden gems of the European Union to perhaps look at things differently at a different angle and reveal the stories about Aquileia in Italy or Drottningholm in Sweden and not necessarily Venice or Florence. Through this platform we want people when you’re traveling to take the time to see things, to taste things and to talk to people,” he said.

The platform will feature 34 sites in Europe in 19 countries and, perhaps surprisingly, including some that people might think do not need any more international visitors, such as the Palace of Versailles.

“They want visitors to spend time in the gardens and they have a goal of spreading tourism over a season.”

He said, “Overall we really want to increase sustainable tourism at World Heritage sites and this idea of increasing the length to stay because that is directly linked to sustainable development for those communities.”

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