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Will Market Forces Rule

Article excerpt

Tourism can be a boon for a country's heritage as long as the law of the market is applied in moderation

Visiting archaeological sites, monuments and museums is often an ambivalent kind of tourism. On the one hand, it is seen as having an important educational and social function, helping tourists to find out more about the culture of the communities they visit. On the other, it is regarded as a major risk, especially for physically fragile sites (containing cave paintings, for example) which attract flocks of tourists, and sites where tourist facilities are few or inadequate.

So excessive exploitation of sites by tourism has been criticized on the grounds that it may rob host communities of their traditional cultural landmarks and destroy the authenticity and significance of their heritage. This happens when attempts are made, through superficial presentations or video games, to cater for visitors who want to be given a quick general picture of the site.

This conflict cannot be solved by cultural measures alone. The growing economic importance of archaeological sites, monuments and museums over the past 15 years as a result of tourist demand must be taken into account as well.

To cope with the pressure, many countries have made big efforts to improve and diversify the presentation of their cultural heritage. Museums have been refurbished. More than $1.1 billion was spent on doing up the Louvre in Paris. New sites have sprung up, including modern art museums in San Francisco, Barcelona, Rome, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Bilbao.

Historic city centres have been renovated, and famous monuments such as the Grassi Palace and the Ca Rezzonico in Venice have been restored. There has been a sharp rise in the number of big exhibitions. More than half a million visitors routinely visit blockbuster shows (e.g. Vermeer at The Hague, Monet in Chicago, and Cezanne and Georges de la Tour in Paris). The 1999 Monet exhibition in London broke the record for a temporary exhibition, clocking up more than 8,500 visitors a day.

These efforts to popularize culture have been widely supported by the media. For most visitors, heritage has become a familiar, easily accessible commodity providing surprises, relaxation and enjoyment. The substantial growth in short-stay cultural tourism reflects this. Such packages typically include a reserved ticket for one or more cultural events, such as an exhibition or an opera, train or air fare, and board - preferably in a charming hotel.

So tourism has been a driving force over the past 15 years in taking cultural heritage into the economic mainstream. This has brought changes in the way heritage is preserved and developed, including the role played by institutions and investment.

Pressures to create jobs and income

In most countries with big tourist industries, apart from the United States and Britain, cultural sites have long been run by public institutions, and the money earned from visitors is largely ploughed back into the sites. This funding is sometimes topped up by other private and public investment.

In some cases however, the income from these sites is used for other purposes than their preservation and development, as may be justified by the economic plight of some of the host countries. This means there is an incentive to over-exploit the cultural heritage while cutting back on the investment needed to preserve and present it properly. Worse, it can lead to the building of tourist facilities, especially hotels, whose poor location and mediocre design seriously harm the quality and authenticity of cultural landscapes.

Planned management of sites can usually avoid such mistakes, though sometimes pressure from economic interests means the plans are not carried out. This has happened with efforts to restore and preserve the sites at Angkor Wat, in Cambodia, and Petra, in Jordan (see article page 40).

The growth of tourism, especially the income it provides, has sometimes induced cultural institutions to develop and redirect some of their activities. …