Cultural Heritage and Development

I stood with a half-dozen fellow travelers and scouted for tropical birds on the treetops below “El Dante,” the devilishly named principal temple of Mirador, a Mayan complex deep in the Petén rainforest of northern Guatemala. Dante is among the world’s largest pyramids, although it’s mostly covered with growth and stones. We had arrived at the site by helicopter – the only way in other than by foot or hoof. The climb up Dante was over rock, not steps, and the way down included a near vertical rope descent for the adventurous. Mirador is a long way from the more popular Chichen Itza or Tikal.

Cultural tourism in developing nations is big part of the economy and still growing. Worldwide international tourist arrivals increased from 25 million in 1950 to 940 million in 2010 and are expected to exceed 1.5 billion in 2020, according to UN statistics. The emerging and developing nation arrival share increased from 31 percent in 1990 to 47 percent in 2010. Cultural monuments are part of the draw, and an iconic few are fountains of revenue. Most tourists visiting Peru, Cambodia, and Egypt go to Machu Picchu, Angkor Wat, and Giza, generating billions of dollars annually. Guatemala attracts visitors to the Mayan city of Tikal, generating profits. Part of the revenue from these sites is entrance fees, but much more is spent on hotels, meals, transportation, guides, side trips, and memorabilia for home. The ‘gold’ that colonial explorers sought is still there, just a different kind.

Yet for each developed site, a dozen and more decay in forests and open spaces or in the midst of cities, even though some are no less significant in history, beauty, or economic potential. Mirador in the Petén of Guatemala is a far older and larger Mayan complex than Tikal. Banteay Chhmar in Cambodia, abandoned near the border with Thailand, displays Khmer architecture rivaling Angkor Wat, 160 kilometers away. Ani, in current day Turkey, on the border with Armenia, was occupied for over a millennium, but is now a ghost town of stunning but crumbling medieval Christian and Islamic architecture. Cyrene in Libya hosts the leading example of Classical Greek architecture on the African continent, but few have seen it.

These sites and others should be studied, stabilized and improved for tourism and cultural legacy. The investment will improve living standards for local communities, augment GDP, and engender national self-respect for place in history. Yet these sites receive limited attention from development donors. Most developed nations dabble in cultural preservation and tourism, including the United States, but give just a trickle of assistance. The competition is stiff – food, medicine, agriculture, schools, hospitals, drinking water, disaster response, anti-drug, anti-terrorism, and the military. But other priorities are served by investing in cultural resources like Mirador, Cyrene, and Banteay Chhmar that will always be in demand for adventure and education and will not disappear if they are cared for.

Archeological research combined with site conservation, display, and interpretation is essential. People will visit cultural landmarks because there is something special to find. Handling tourists numbers is critical. Sites can be overwhelmed, and the property damaged by crowds. A fair share of the income generated should be used for maintaining the site, with local communities deeply engaged. Some of the most visited places fall short. Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, swarms with an overload of visitors while a bee-hive of new hotels clogs the adjacent city of Siem Reap.

Donors should increase aid for cultural monument preservation and visitation in developing nations. Plans should lead with action for the sites that are most significant, most endangered, and best for tourism. The plans must work as a business, but for some attendance should be limited by quotas or more naturally by managing the adventures required to get there. Investors, national agencies and experts, and local communities must collaborate, and international advice and support should be sought from UNESCO, non-profit groups such as the World Monuments Fund and Global Heritage Fund, cultural academics, and the cultural museums of the world. Museums should have a greater role than they sometimes do, combining long-standing expertise in science and conservation with growing experience in tourism and retail marketing. Some developed world museums also hold artifacts from sites. Debate over repatriation complicates cooperation, but if emotions can turn demands for ownership to loans, many museums would lend items to new or existing sister museums nearer to where the artifacts were found originally. In a world filled with war, investment and cooperation on cultural heritage can be a rare triple rainbow.