Industries in Depth

Turning tourism into development: Mitigating risks and leveraging heritage assets

If done right, tourism can actually bolster and preserve cultural heritage, while also helping to develop economies.

If done right, tourism can actually bolster and preserve cultural heritage, while also helping to develop economies. Image: REUTERS/David Loh

Abeer Al Akel
Acting CEO, Royal Commission for AlUla
Maimunah Mohd Sharif
Former Executive Director, UN-Habitat
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Travel and Tourism

This article is part of: Centre for Urban Transformation
  • Cultural and historical travel accounts for 40% of all tourism globally.
  • 73% of millennials report being interested in cultural and historic places.
  • Protecting local culture and heritage requires a robust plan to mitigate negative impacts and policies to ensure prosperity is shared.

Culture and heritage tourism has the potential to create significant employment opportunities and stimulate economic transformation.

However, communities worldwide often grapple with the challenges posed by the magnetic appeal of heritage sites and the promise of economic prosperity. Property values can increase, displacing local residents and permanently altering the character of their neighbourhoods.

But capitalizing on tourism's potential while preserving and enhancing history and culture is possible — and it is already being done in sites around the world. From Malaysia to Saudi Arabia, many are already demonstrating the ability to balance economic development with socially and environmentally sustainable transformations.

Below are five common features that those sustainable approaches embrace.

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Translating a vision into an area-based plan

Urban planning and regeneration require a holistic approach, coordinating interventions across various sectors and providing guidance for investments. A holistic plan would include spatial and policy measures that are supported by regulatory measures, particularly those focusing on affordability and social cohesion. UN-Habitat prioritizes measures which promote mixed-use and social-economically diverse development to mitigate gentrification.

In George Town, Malaysia, the Special Area Plan and its Comprehensive Management Plan function as the key reference for inclusive strategic policies, regulations and guidelines for conservation, economic activities and intangible heritage. The plan, which balances economic development and conservation, included affordability measures such as supporting local owners restoring their houses, enabling adaptive reuse for small businesses, and supporting renters, thus protecting a share of historic buildings from tourism-induced redevelopment.

In Saudi Arabia’s AlUla, home to 40,000 residents and leading cultural assets including Hegra and Jabal Ikma — which was recently added to UNESCO’s Memory of the World International Register — a similar vision is unfolding. The Path to Prosperity masterplan makes provisions for new housing, creates new economic opportunities and establishes new schools, mosques and healthcare facilities for the community with affordability as the guiding principle. An expanded public realm will create district and neighbourhood parks with green spaces, playgrounds, outdoor gyms and bicycle trails. A network of scenic routes, low-impact public transportation and non-vehicular options will facilitate mobility.

A diversified economic base

To avoid over-reliance on a single economic driver, planners must make space for a range of alternative livelihoods. In AlUla, The Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU), which is responsible for the city’s development into a tourism hub, is drawing on its rich local heritage to create a global destination while diversifying the local economy. Investment in native industries such as agriculture has resulted in a revived high-yielding and higher-value farming sector, while new sectors such as the creation of film and logistics industries are creating new jobs and providing increased revenue for residents.

Saudi Arabia's AlUla offers clues as to how to balance economic development with the preservation of cultural heritage.
Saudi Arabia's AlUla offers clues as to how to balance economic development with the preservation of cultural heritage. Image: Royal Commission for AlUla

The UN-Habitat Parya Sampada project in the Kathmandu Valley undertook earthquake reconstruction of the heritage settlements in urban areas using a holistic approach of physical reconstruction and economic recovery. It focused on the reconstruction of public heritage infrastructure supported by tourism enterprises run by women and youth.

Nurturing living heritage and local knowledge

Maintaining the character of a place is critical to its future and creates valuable economic assets. Maintenance and preservation animate the built environment, while the recovery of building techniques and crafts of traditional cultural activities creates jobs and maintains skills.

UN-Habitat’s work in Beirut demonstrates this approach, supporting several hundred jobs. Through the Beirut Housing Rehabilitation and Cultural and Creative Industries project, led by UN-Habitat, UNESCO supervises the allocation of small grants to local artisans. The regeneration of the historical train station in Mar Mikhael and adjacent areas will focus on traditional building techniques to reactivate cultural markets and businesses.

In AlUla, the Hammayah training programme is empowering thousands to work as guardians of natural heritage and culture. In Myanmar the nationwide Community-Based Tourism initiative is operated and managed by local vulnerable communities to provide genuine experiences to world travelers.

Share the value created by tourism

Addressing the negative externalities of tourism requires the assessment and compensation of its real impacts, which can be done through sustainable tourism planning and community participation. The pressure on services, increased congestion and the cost of living need to be addressed through specific investments, funded through the taxation of tourism-related revenues redirected towards the local community, especially for the most vulnerable groups.

Examples include the Balearic Island of Mallorca, which has introduced a sustainable tourism tax to support conservation of the island. Meanwhile Kyoto, Japan has implemented several measures to control the number of tourists at popular sites and establish visitor codes of conduct.

Human-centered local development

Empowering the local community to actively engage with its rich culture while minimizing conflict with the natural environment can increase the resilience of residents and reduce the pressures of gentrification. Participation in decision-making is critical to shape visions and plans that achieve these goals.

The UN-Habitat Participatory Strategy in Mexico’s San Nicolas de los Garza showcases how collaboration with the local community throughout the design and implementation process can ensure solutions capture the culture, skills and needs of the neighborhoods. The 2030 City Vision provides a participatory action plan for the integration of culture, heritage and tourism within the currently prevalent urban economic sectors.

In Saudi Arabia such approaches are embedded in Vision 2030, a blueprint for economic diversification. RCU deploys short- and long-term support to the community through scholarship, upskilling and support for SMEs to enhance access to jobs and entrepreneurship in hospitality and tourism.

While development always introduces complex dynamics and transformations, mitigating gentrification in tourist areas is crucial to achieving sustainable local development for the benefit of all and preserving the unique character of these places.

These measures advocate a proactive approach to ensure that economic growth remains inclusive for the entire community, and that tourism is promoted for the benefit of local residents as well as visitors.

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