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Striking a Balance: Cultural Tourism and the Sustainable Management of Complex Heritage Sites

Striking a Balance: Cultural Tourism and the Sustainable Management of Complex Heritage Sites

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US-ICOMOS International SymposiumBalancing Culture, Conservation and Economic Development: Heritage Tourism in and around the Pacific Rim18-21 April 2007 in San Francisco, California
School of Architecture and Built Environment, The University of Newcastle, University Drive,Callaghan NSW 2308, Australia.
A reality of World Heritage listing for many sites is an increased pressure to form the basis ofeconomic growth through tourism. This comes with associated issues of site degradation and loss ofconnection between local communities and their heritage. However, recent developments in theWorld Heritage nomination and reporting process indicate a growing awareness of the need to betterbalance environmental conservation with sustainable economic and social development. The issue ofsustainable tourism is of particular concern to complex cultural heritage sites where significance islinked to intangible cultural heritage as much as it is to the tangible built heritage. In order to betterunderstand the sustainability challenges facing complex heritage sites, this paper reports on the extentto which five heritage management plans address the issue of sustainable tourism. Literature drawnfrom the fields of strategic planning and tourism management describes two key themes impacting onsustainable practice – a strategic orientation and stakeholder participation. Content analysis is thenused to determine the extent to which these principles have been integrated into the tourismmanagement process at five World Heritage sites. The five sites are amongst the few on the WorldHeritage list that currently have comprehensive management plans in place. With the new UNESCOadministrative and reporting requirements, these are likely to act as the model for management plansat other sites. It is therefore an opportune time to examine the extent to which they represent anappropriate model for the sustainable management of sites of heritage significance.
Key words:
cultural tourism, heritage management, sustainable development, sustainable tourism
There has been growing interest in the impact of tourism activity on World Heritage sites over the past20 years. The pressure of increasing tourist numbers is compounded by the principle at the core ofthe World Heritage Convention, that World Heritage sites belong to everyone and that they should bepreserved for future generations (UNESCO 1972). So, if the significance that allowed a site to gainWorld Heritage Listing is to be maintained, and World Heritage sites are to remain accessible tocurrent and future generations in the face of continued tourism growth, managing tourism activity in asustainable manner is a critical issue.However, the concept of sustainable heritage tourism is not without its problems. Most models ofsustainable development require a holistic approach to the decision-making process that balances theeconomic, environmental and social dimensions of development over time (Johnson 1993). Economicsustainability therefore implies a system of production that satisfies present levels of consumptionwithout compromising future needs. Environmental sustainability requires resources be harvested nofaster that they can be regenerated and wastes be emitted no faster that they can be assimilated bythe environment. Social sustainability assumes economic growth constrained by the requirements ofsocial equity (Basiago 1999). The complexity of achieving a balance across these three dimensions ismanifest. What trade-offs are acceptable and to whom, what criteria are to be measured and how canthey be measured in a practical and comparable manner for the purposes of decision-making. Anyfailure to recognise the contextual, contested and socially constructed nature of the sustainabledevelopment balancing process will only serve to highlight existing inequalities (Rydin et al. 2003) andfurther separate sections of a community from their heritage.Most models of sustainable development also include multiple stakeholder participation and, inparticular, community participation as a cornerstone of the development process. For most WorldHeritage Sites however, defining ‘the community’ is exceptionally problematic (Richards and Hall1998). Is it to be defined on economic, social, spatial or temporal terms and how is the community toparticipate equitably in the sustainable development decision-making process? For some theproposition of truly extensive and equitable community participation in any sustainable developmentprocess is an idealistic concept with little chance of effective implementation (Getz and Jamel 1994;Aas et al. 2005). Yet failure to adequately reconcile the full range of opinions present in anycommunity is likely to exclude many from the potential benefits of tourism and reduce theeffectiveness of sustainable tourism initiatives (Simpson 2001).In the light of recent recognition of the need to manage tourism at World Heritage sites sustainably(Garrod and Fyall 2000; Pedersen 2002), it might be expected to feature significantly in sitemanagement plans. The remainder of this paper will test the validity of this expectation. This studyanalysed the management plans of five UK World Heritage Sites to identify their approach to the2
sustainable management of tourism. Evidence of two key concepts were assessed – the use of astrategic approach to tourism planning and the level of stakeholder participation in that planningprocess. The assumption is that sustainable tourism is a desirable goal for World Heritage Sites, thatextensive stakeholder participation will contribute to sustainable heritage tourism and strategicplanning is an appropriate framework within which sustainable heritage tourism can occur.As a foundation for the concept of sustainable heritage tourism, the next section of the paper willprovide a brief examination of the theoretical basis of sustainable tourism and the concept of culturalheritage tourism. This is followed by a discussion of the methodology used and an analysis of thefindings to indicate the planning approach at each site and the extent of stakeholder participation inthat planning process. Finally, conclusions are drawn concerning the extent that the planning modelcurrently in use at the five UK sites represents an appropriate model for the sustainable managementof heritage tourism elsewhere.
The concept of sustainable development 
Despite widespread consensus about the general objective of sustainable development, the conceptremains contentious and definitions abound as people from a variety of fields apply it in differentcontexts. In exploring the application of sustainable development to tourism, Sharpley (2000:2) notesthe concept has been criticised for being both ambiguous and contradictory. The debate is furthercomplicated by those who argue for a flexible approach to balancing economic development andenvironmental preservation, dependent on circumstance (Hunter 1997). While there is a recognisedneed for continued growth in the Third World to equitably meet basic human needs, such acontingency approach fails to address the need for a corresponding reduction in economic growth inthe Developed World in order to achieve a sustainable global balance (Mowforth and Munt 1998).The most widely used definition was proposed in 1987 by the World Commission on Environment andDevelopment (WCED) which defined sustainable development as “. . . development that meets theneeds of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”The foundation of the WCED definition is a state of equilibrium across three interdependentsustainability dimensions – economic, environmental and social (Johnson 1993; Basiago 1999).
Agenda 21
operationalised the sustainability concept by proposing a number of tangible strategies toachieve sustainability across the three dimensions shown in Table 1. Despite ongoing criticism,(Mowforth and Munt 1998; Agyeman and Evans 2003; Littig and Greißler 2005), the WCED definitionand
Agenda 21
remain the prevailing conceptual influence on world economic development and theone adopted in the remainder of this paper.3

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