Sites like St Peter’s
Basilica in Rome or Angkor in
Cambodia are likely on every travellers’ bucket list. The problem is, they’re
also ending up on lists of threatened sites -- endangered by the sheer number
of people who visit them.
“Most prominent sites in the
world share this issue,” said Bonnie Burnham, president of the New York-based World Monuments Fund, which issues a biennial
list of threatened cultural heritage sites around the world. Some inclusions on
the 2012 World Monuments Watch list
damaged by natural disasters or neglect, such as heritage sites in eastern
Japan, Gothic Revival buildings in New Zealand and the oldest cemetery in
Athens, Greece. But several are hurt by poorly managed tourism. “It really is
about not having any kind of system for controlling the quantity of groups that
go to the same place at the same time,” Burnham explained.
When cruise ships pull into Charleston, South Carolina, or tour buses
crowd the famous Nazca lines in Peru – two sites out of the 67 on the 2012 list -- they bring in a ton of tourists, which can result in the trampling
of cultural sites and increased pollution if they are not well managed – not to
mention that the crowds make visiting these places a lot less appealing to
What should concerned travellers do about it?
Burnham believes conservation is, in part, in the hands of the traveller.
“[It’s about] knowing what
you’re going to be seeing when you get there,” she said, “planning a visit at a
time when the site is not overly jammed with people, learning how to be a
respectful visitor in relation to not touching things, and thinking of yourself
being in a museum environment even when you’re not.”
The World Monuments Fund even
promotes a “sustainable
tourism pledge” that encourages visitors to never remove items
from a site, pay attention to whether flash photography is allowed, and head off
the beaten path to less-touristed places.
Burnham’s group gives grants and lends its expertise to local groups to help
them better manage the tourist throngs. At ancient Angkor, for example, Phnom
Bakheng temple is a prime spot for sunset viewing, which results in
a lot of tourists congregating, climbing on ancient sculptures and platforms,
and leaving empty water and beer bottles. But a tourism plan developed by the
World Monuments Fund with local authorities in 2011 limited the number of
tourists who can visit Phnom Bakheng at sunset to 300 per day and promoted
visiting at other times of the day to alleviate the rush.
Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail in Peru similarly suffered from hordes
of tourists, who brought in trash, pollution and damaged the sites. In 2005,
Peruvian authorities reduced the daily number
of visitors to the Incan ruins to 2,500. There is also a limit for hikers
on the Incan Trail, a popular three-and-a-half day trek on Incan stone paths
that leads to Machu Picchu. Many tour operators now offer hikes on alternative
trails, different routes to Machu Picchu or longer treks through beautiful countryside
to lesser-known ruins, such as Vilcabamba,
the last capital of the Incas.
The World Monuments Fund is also restoring baroque Andean churches near
Cusco, Peru, promoting them as an alternative, rewarding experience to other
heavily-visited sites in the area, and is working on a map of Rome that shows less-crowded
sites that are in close proximity to Rome’s tourism headliners – so visitors
can explore the catacombs below St Peter’s rather than stand in line to see the
basilica during peak hours.
One thing Burnham wouldn’t advise is for travellers to stop going to
these cultural sites altogether. She hopes these problems can be fixed. “Tourism is the future of many of the great monumental sites
of the world.”
Lori Robertson writes the ethical
traveller column for BBC Travel. You can send ethical dilemmas to firstname.lastname@example.org.