ESACH Blog | Heritage and tourism for sustainable solutions: stakeholder involvement in heritage tourism

The European Heritage Tribune and ESACH believe it is important to share young people’s perspectives on cultural heritage. Therefore, the ESACH Blog features blog posts written by association members engaged in ESACH Talks. This blog post is written by Ella Békési, one of the speakers of the February 2021 Talk on Sustainable Tourism, and Rebecca Friedel.

Sustainability has become a buzzword; everyone strives to be sustainable in some way or another nowadays. The United Nations has made it their overarching goal to lead the world to sustainability in all aspects of life. This, of course, includes those aspects of life related to heritage management and, ultimately, the tourism industry. Of issues related to sustainable heritage management and tourism, perhaps most salient is the fact that adjacent, indigenous, and vulnerable communities are often excluded from tourism development and because of tourism development.

Globally, people form special connections with archaeological sites and heritage spaces. In particular, indigenous and adjacent communities desire access to these sites, to share and relive their memories, as part of keeping their culture alive. That is, maintaining intangible culture through their tangible culture.

When tourism development projects fail to incorporate these adjacent stakeholder groups, a disconnect forms between heritage spaces and local populations. This can result in the loss of cultural identities and a sense of community. When people are not allowed to engage with a heritage site in a meaningful way, for example by earning a living from showcasing artisan skills or indigenous practices, they gradually see less societal value in these lifeways. People lose traditions, leave, and move on to find other employment. 

This can leave heritage sites vulnerable to destruction, vandalism, and looting through a general loss of space or respect for a particular culture. In many areas of the world, the individuals living adjacent to sites and heritage spaces live on a few dollars a day. These populations often sustain themselves by selling artisan products, food, providing guided tours or growing crops, raising cattle, and hunting and fishing within heritage sites and nature reserves. These activities, although grounded into the heritage significance of the place, can be destructive if not managed properly or considered within plans for tourism development.

The result is a dilemma between ensuring the physical conservation of sites and artifacts, on the one hand, or maintaining the livelihoods of local and indigenous communities surrounding them, on the other. Separately, these options do not provide a means to engage with culture and heritage in an economically, environmentally, and culturally sustainable manner. Yet, through the involvement of stakeholders and adjacent communities in decision-making processes and planning, the only truly sustainable avenue for heritage management and tourism emerges.

We cannot eat our dances; we cannot eat our art!

Figure 1: Ms Felicita Cantun, Yucatec Maya Activist and founder of Kanan Miatsil Guardians of Culture from Belize. Source: Kanan Miatsil Guardians of Culture

We do not mean to suggest tourism as a solution for every issue related to heritage management. It certainly cannot solve prominent debates surrounding questions of cultural ownership or land rights. Still, it is clear that exclusion of local communities from tourism and associated economic opportunities is an urgent threat to our shared heritage, which inclusive tourism frameworks can help mitigate. As Ms Felicita Cantun, a Yucatec Maya activist from Belize, said; 

“We cannot eat our dances; we cannot eat our art! We need to get paid to survive and to continue safeguarding our culture!” – Felicita Cantun, Yucatec Maya activist from Belize.

Sustainability comes from allowing heritage and local communities to inform and drive tourism activities. On the other hand, tourism’s economic potential can support sustainable, research-focused cultural projects and entrepreneurial aspirations emerging near heritage spaces and in remote areas.

Interdisciplinary and multivocal projects

Figure 2: Cerros Archaeological Reserve, Corozal District, Belize

A large proportion of tourists travel to experience the diversity of human lifeways, something that is inherent when cultural heritage is embraced and fostered as an asset at the local sphere. By highlighting and strengthening these threads between cultural diversity and tourism, we can provide communities with the opportunities and spaces they need to develop sustainably.

Organizations and local tourism stakeholder associations can serve as reference groups, provide capacity building for cultural professionals, and develop cultural experiences with heritage stakeholders. In the meantime, these cultural professionals along with heritage managers, conservation specialists, and national or international heritage organizations should have a place at the tourism table, working together to prevent mass-tourism that is disconnected from local communities and endangers cultural authenticity.

Some examples of collaborative projects include voluntourism, where heritage projects incorporate the tourism element, allowing visitors to travel while educating themselves through working for and supporting a social or cultural cause. Another approach is opening and supporting community museum initiatives and curating locally-focused exhibitions. Tourism initiatives can create community gardens or ecological parks using traditional methods, working with and for native populations with unparalleled knowledge of the land. 

Community-led site and community rehabilitation programs or story-telling and oral history workshops are also excellent ways to allow people to take the lead in safeguarding their heritage. These spaces can foster local development or research opportunities while creating content and gathering information that can fuel fundraising to ensure the sustainability of future heritage projects.

These types of tourism initiatives involve local stakeholders and build on practical, accessible cultural knowledge, allowing for people to continuously engage with their culture and heritage.

Collaboration for change

Figure 3: The Heritage Education Network Belize Team in 2020. Through socially and digitally innovative, holistic, and collaborative projects, we aim to empower local communities and stakeholders to create and maintain sustainable lifeways through culture.

First and foremost, both heritage management and tourism must be for the communities within which they work to foster sustainable development, that is, public initiatives. In realizing the role of heritage and its socio-economic potential in our society, it is apparent that the mainstream focus of sustainability, heritage management, tourism, and their related fields intersect to provide practical solutions in reaching the Sustainable Development Goals. 

Although there are many controversies that heritage related disciplines like archaeology face regarding heritage tourism and its development, conscious and responsible collaboration between heritage stakeholders and the tourism industry can serve as an excellent tool to mitigate environmental, social, and economic difficulties. Ultimately, bringing heritage and tourism to the forefront of the 2030 Sustainability Agenda.  

Yet, to do this, we need to raise awareness of the intersection between heritage management and tourism, all while fundamentally reimagining – if not re-creating – heritage and tourism project frameworks as collaborative and community-driven. Ultimately, the role that heritage and tourism play in building community, creating partnerships, and improving economic stability is central to achieving the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals. By giving local communities a voice and space in these projects, we empower them to fulfill their rightful roles as influential and resilient stakeholders.

About the authors

Ella was born and raised in Budapest, Hungary. She studied Archaeology and Cultural Heritage at University College London in the United Kingdom and worked as an assistant in public and commercial archaeology as well as in the heritage sectors in the United Kingdom and Central America. Ella participated in the Lamanai Archaeology Project (LAP) in Belize, and have been assisting branches of the Belizean National Institute of Culture and History in numerous projects. 

Throughout the years, Ella witnessed the effect of socio-economic issues related to archaeological conservation and the safeguarding of heritage and culture. She developed an interdisciplinary interest in inclusive and sustainable archaeological and cultural heritage management through heritage education and tourism in Central America.

Rebecca was born and raised in Woodstock, Illinois, USA. She received her Bachelor of Arts degree in Anthropology with a minor in Geography from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2010. In 2012, she started the graduate program in Anthropology at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) where she received her Master of Arts in 2017 and is set to complete her Doctor of Philosophy degree in 2021. She is passionate about interdisciplinary work but is an anthropologist and archaeologist by training who specializes in the study of ancient human-plant relationships, or paleoethnobotany.

Rebecca has conducted research for the Mopan Valley Archaeology and Preclassic Projects in Cayo, Belize since 2013. She also co-founded Fajina Archaeology Outreach in 2015. Under a Fulbright Scholar Award, Rebecca also teaches at the University of Belize for the Spring semester in 2021.

Heritage Education Network Belize

Ella and Rebecca recently co-founded Heritage Education Network Belize (HENB), along with Sylvia Batty and April Martinez. HENB is a nonprofit organization dedicated to safeguarding cultural and natural heritage through education, capacity building and advocacy. HENB’s goal is to help the sustainable development of stakeholder communities, cultural, creative and tourism businesses as we believe they are key stakeholders to achieving our mission.

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