Written by Giacomo Crivellari
There are recurrent scenarios that can be typically observed while visiting places, or entities, inscribed in the World Heritage List, and one of these is related with the valorization of the site itself. The point of interest, independently from its natural or cultural character, is often surrounded by a universe of minor attractions that might be more or less related. The most common practice for the visitors is to make their way to the expected point of interest through a jungle of distractions, resellers, reproductions and so on. This implies a distortion for the focus on the entity itself, spreading the attention in a vaster area: the Heritage becomes relatively interesting, losing its absolute value. The incomes of tourism are divided by a greater amount of stakeholders, or better, external agents, with no or very little enhancement of the quality of the visit itself.
A marketing approach could explain this phenomenon: an inscription to the World Heritage List not only means direct funding for the conservation of the monument itself, but also implies the activation of a new business that many want to pursue, from the street food stalls to the nearby municipalities, tour agencies and the list continues. The consequences of a broader offer are twofold; the enrichment of a bigger part of the population, that typically has never relied on tourism for their incomes, and the growing of the attention to minor sites of interest, that could activate more projects of conservation. These are examples of tangible improvements for the nearby areas. The drawbacks are related to the scarcity of resources that are already dedicated to the patrimony, which might be even more affected by the increasing number of dividends. The bigger the intervention area is, the fewer the specific funds for the singular projects are. When a site is proposed for being included on the list of World Heritage Sites, many people share the value of that entity, and agree on its exceptional features. But after the recognition, even more people want to take advantage from it, and are disposed to deny its unique character promoting similar and equivalent attractions.
Moreover, behind any mere economical aspect, there is a conceptual change that is affecting the way we perceive heritage sites, and it is worsening their exploitation: the claim of the subjectivity of the value. It consists in the refusal of the idea that an entity has more value than another due to an objective evaluation, in this case the UNESCO criteria. As soon as a value is not shared, it loses its meaning and even stops existing. Claiming that the value of the heritage is relative is an unforgivable oxymoron that immediately devalues the object. This relativism of the heritage concept has been applied in many cases and many discussions as a powerful tool to reset the list of priorities while planning the intervention necessary for its conservation. The rejection of the absolute value of the object dramatically leads to a never ending phenomenological discussion, with no useful consequences but the consumption of time and intellectual resources. Considering the amount of eminent personalities that have devoted their lives to study the issue of setting a list of criteria and priorities for the preservation and the transmission of the fundamental values for humanity, it is anachronistic and non-sense to return to the relativism of the heritage concept.
The two behaviors, on the one hand the uncontrolled exploitation of the heritages sites, and on the other hand the refusal of any absolute value coming from the World Heritage List, are seriously affecting the actual potential for future preservation efforts. It is fundamental to defend the UNESCO criteria, and to withstand the results of their applications against relativism. The first step consists in the re-affirmation of the importance of the World Heritage Center, its promotion and the respect of its principles and resolutions. Subsequently comes the creation of strongly-bonded local groups that directly support the patrimony, with their own resources and for their own and general sake, ensuring that the leakage of resources is as limited as possible. Between all the amazing examples of crowd sourced restoration projects, it is worth referencing the Great Mosque of Djenné, Mali, where the whole population of the village is involved in the preservation of their very unique Heritage. If every site, or entity, present on the list of the world’s patrimony could count on such a powerful and shared impulse, there would be considerably more quality in the conservation of the whole human cultural heritage.
About the author - Giacomo Crivellari