Community, Tourism and the UNESCO Tag

The designation of UNESCO World Heritage Site is meant to preserve areas of unique cultural significance - but is this the best way to address historic concerns, or is the agenda driven primarily by tourism revenue?

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    The advantage of living in a big city rubbed off the other day in the talk given at India International Centre by Peeyush Sekhsaria on the Mud Mosque of Djenné. More than the extraordinary event of the Grand Mosque being annually mud plastered by the whole town, what intrigued me was the striking similarity of the geography of the Djenné Town in Mali to Majuli Islands in Assam, India. Being associated with the preparation of the dossier for its UNESCO nomination as a World Heritage Site, I could relate to the contradictions which were debated by the attendees at the talk. And that held true not only for Majuli Islands, but also for Hampi as a World heritage Site and Hyderabad as a proposed World Heritage City.

    Personally, in spite of the controversy we often hear on issues relating to a community being affected by a UNESCO nomination, failing to adhere to regulations of an ‘external’ agency and resisting restrictions on ‘development’, I still find value in a UNESCO tag. This is for the simple reason that it documents an inestimable treasure of traditional knowledge which would otherwise have been only in spoken word, memory or regional language. How this acquired knowledge is eventually used for sustainable development or preservation of the place, or whether it is still relevant for such a use, is a totally different matter. Most often I find the tourism sector emerging at the center stage of the entire nomination activity, probably in the hope of generating revenue from which the heritage property is expected to benefit. It seems logical at first instance, but in reality do heritage properties benefit from such a revenue?

    The Mosque & the community are integrated, and view any other group trying to conserve either as an 'outsider'

    The Mosque & the community are integrated, and view any other group trying to conserve as an ‘outsider’

    Much of the post talk debate revolved around this particular theme of how a nomination can help sustain a listed heritage property. It brought forth a range of opinions highlighting a variety of issues and approaches which touched upon local politics, national economy, regional geography, community aspirations and development. But the fundamental question still remained; does one have to employ a UNESCO tag to address the gamut of these historic concerns? Does a UNESCO tag guarantee tourism revenue? Is generating revenue from tourism one of the main reasons for acquiring a UNESCO tag? Has the UNESCO tag contributed to the longevity of World Heritage Sites?

    Question such as these largely seem rhetorical to the wider audience and the community at large, but the professionals involved do find an answer—if only for themselves. And that is the advantage of living in big cities where diverse professionals can come together in singular forums to raise questions and collectively try to find relevant answers. There is something you take away from every such gathering; it challenges you to voice your views, appreciate others’ and take comfort in the fact that there are many people who share your passion to work for the sustenance of people and places.