Monday, October 9, 2017

Death By Tourism

http://www.theguardian.com; Aug. 30, 2017


Hello Everyone:

Blogger is back for one more abbreviated week.  Yours Truly is not one to complain (much) but these back-to-back Jewish holidays have really done a number on the schedule.  Nevertheless, she persists.

Today she persists with an interesting question.  The question was posed by the The Guardian's Laignee Barron, "'Unesco-cide' does world heritage status do cities more harm than good?"  Death by the United Nationas Economic, Scientific, and Culture Organization.  Not literally death by UNESCO; more like a world heritage sites overrun by tourists.  Without a doubt, inscription in the World Heritage Organization's registry can be a boon for a city like George Town, Malaysia-a one time "gambling-ridden clan jetties."  The city was saved from deterioration when it was awarded world heritage status. However, that designation came with a heavy price: invasive tourism leaving the inhabitants to wonder if the daily intrusions into their personal spaces and disruption was all worth it.

Chew Jetty is a magnet for boatloads of tourists.  The historic homes have been re-purposes as brightly lit commercial stalls, peddling all the usual tourist tchotkes.  The tour buses regularly drop holiday-goers from the crack of dawn to well past dusk.

Ms. Barron writes, "The daily intrusion has clearly taken a toll: windows are boarded, no photo signs are pervasive, and tenants quickly vanish at the sight of a foreign face."

Lee Kah Lei, the operator of a souvenir stand outside her home, told Ms. Barron,

I would like to remind people that we are not monkeys and this is not a zoo.

Ms. Kah Lei also made this observation,

...the more people who come here, the more the shopkeepers sell.

However she does sorely wish that that the selfie-taking tourists would respect her privacy, particularly not drop into her house uninvited.

Historically, the "clan-jetties" were a thriving seafront on the fringes of George Town on Penang Island.  "A ramshackle collection of stilt houses and sheds, stretching along a line of wooden piers each bearing the surname of its Chinese clan, they are on the last intact bastions of Malaysia's old Chinese settlements."

At onetime, there were numerous clan jetties.  Today, only seven remain, having survived two world wars and the Japanese occupation, but as time wore on the piers fell into a state of neglect.  The threat of encroaching developments caused the jetty owners to turn to one place: "they made an 11th-hour bid to Unesco for protection."


Their efforts were successful.  In 2008 the clan jetties were designated UNESCO world heritage sites but not before two the enclaves were demolished to accommodate a housing complex.

As the saying goes, "Be careful what you wish for because it may come true and might not be what you want."  Laignee Barron reports, "Where fishermen, oyster harvesters and fortune tellers once plied their trade, souvenir vendors and snack bars have taken root."  The locals say they were surprised by the tide of sight-seers flooding their village.  "It's a similar complaint that has resounded across Europe this summer, as cities from Barcelona [theguardian.com; Aug. 1, 2017; date accessed Oct. 9, 2017] to Venice [independent.co.uk; July 27, 2017; date accessed Oct. 9, 2017] try to balance the positive effects of tourism with the inevitable downsides.

Chew Siew Pheng, a resident of Chew Jetty admitted,

We would be gone today if not for the Unesco listing.

Ms. Chew recalled the constant threat of eviction during her childhood, as the jetties continued to deteriorate.

Although UNESCO spared the last seven jetties from a date with the wrecking ball, she added that the WHO status

...affected our privacy.  Our jetty has become commercialised.  People are moving.  During the December holidays like Chinese New Year and Malay Raya, it's not even a place to live.

Indeed.  Currently, there are "1,052 destinations across the world that have been stampe with United Nations world heritage status" struggling to find a balance between the economic benefits of tourism and preserving the culture that brought them recognition.

UNESCO began heritage designation in 1972 to identify and protect place of outstanding universal value.  Nevertheless, by identifying those places, designation fueled the onslaught of visitors, opening the door to the kind of commercialization that can lead to the Disney-facation of a place.

In the 2002 Manuel Managing Tourism at World Heritage Sites, former WHO director Franceso Bandarin wrote,

It is an inevitable destiny: the very reasons why a property is chosen for inscription on the world heritage list are also the reasons why millions of tourists flock to those sites year after year.

Italian writer Marco d'Eramo gave this phenomena a name.  Mr. d'Eramo argued in the New Left Review "that Unesco preserves buildings but allows the communities around them to be destroyed often by tourism."  He coined the term Unesco-cide (newleftreview.org; July-Aug. 2014; date accessed Oct. 9, 2017).

Another example of "UNESCO-cide" is Luang Prabang, Laos.  A world heritage town of about 50,000 residents, it is on track to receive over 70,000 tourists by 2018 (laotiantimes.com; Sept. 27, 2016; date accessed Oct. 9, 2017).  Ms. Barron writes, "Researcher Chloe Maurel has written about the adverse affect of the status [theconversation.com; Jan. 11, 2017; date accessed Oct. 9, 2017] on the historic Casco Viejo neighbourhood in Panama City,which relegated its poorest inhabitants to the city limits following it Unesco validation-while the central district was flooded with tourists."

National Geographic (news.nationalgeographic.com; Feb. 3, 2003  date accessed Oct. 9, 2017) has put together case studies such as Xian, China, the home of the famous terra cotta warriors, where a poorly place museum may have adversely impacted the fragile site.  Lauri Hafvenstein and Brian Handwerk also wrote about "...the controversial activity close to the Belize's Barrier Reef, where developers are closing in and exploiting the region's world heritage status to sell swamp land to customers over the internet."

George Town and the clan jetties, the UNESCO designation provided a much needed second life.  Some history:  George Town was established in 1786, by the British East India Company.  The settlement attracted artisans, sailors, and traders during the 19th and 20th centuries.  Fishermen and porters from the southern Chinese province of Fujian established enclaves above the seafront.  Each extended family (clan) claimed a jetty and makeshift settlements grew as other family members emigrated and built stilt homes interconnected by wooden walkways.

Ms. Barron writes, "When George Town lost its free port state in 1969, the city fell into decline, wracked by high unemployment for nearly 30 years."  UN designation revived George Town as a tourist destination; "between six and seven million people stay in the city's hotels each year.  The clan jetties-long dismissed as a gambling-ridden, squatters' slum-were suddenly a top attraction."

Jo Caust, associate professor at the University of Melbourne, told Ms. Barron that "world heritage status can prove a double edge sword.  Designation is frequently considered a cash cow by governments anxious to "ring dollars out of architectural history," she posited in the Journal of Cultural Heritage earlier this year.  While re-purposing a place as a tourist destination can facilitate community revitalization, without proper management plans those bus loads of tourists can eventually destroy a site.

Prof. Caust told Ms. Barron,

Communities impacted by tourism in Europe are trying now to fight back against the destructive effect of uncontrolled tourism.  The impact in a third world country is likely to be more extreme...What is the motivation behind the development and the achievement of the status?  Making more money or cultural heritage protection?

Clement Liang, a member of the Penang Heritage Trust who help get the clan jetties inscribed as a world heritage site, agreed "that when commercial interests are on the line they, override the idealist notion of preserving the character of a heritage site."

UNESCO has increasingly promoted the concept of "sustainable tourism," making 2017 the "International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development."  However, heritage experts say that this lofty goal is more theoretical than practical.

Mr. Liang said,

Currently Unesco has no clear guidelines or effective methods to control the commercialisation of world heritage sites, and its talk on sustainability is more a verbal exercise than enforceable.

Laignee Barron reports, "The Penang Heritage Trust says the future of the jetties ultimately rests in the hands of the clan leaders."

The jetty residents are not united on the area's future.  Some of have watched the commercialization of Chew Jetty with envy, others with dismay.  Not all the residents, especially the younger generation, appreciate the history of the older, higher maintenance homes that lack the even the most basic modern amenities like a sewage system.

Ang Huah, a tour guide and inhabitant of the Lim Jetty, offers this solution: "...avoid bringing people to his clan's quieter enclave, funnelling visitors to the Chews instead."  He said,

It's not peaceful.  And people don't even really buy stuff.

Chew Siew Pheng, who operates a lodging place out of her house, is concerned that if the clan do not decide on an effective management plan for dealing with the tourists, the identity, the history of the place will be gone.

Ms. Chew said "one proposal would be to introduce an entrance fee to help limit visitors and create a fund to maintain and renovate the jetties, making more appealing to occupy."  She conceded that while the commercialization of her clan's jetty cannot be undone, the residents need to step out and do more to "ensure the jetties are maintained and improved for the sake of residents, not just for tourists."

Chew Siew Pheng concludes, 

Only we can preserve this place.  We have to decide now how to manage it.