THE increased tourist arrivals since George Town’s listing as a Unesco World Heritage Site have brought numerous benefits to the city and its people.
But like many similar destinations across Southeast Asia, it can also bring negative impacts, cautioned Dr Donald Ellsmore, convenor of the Association for Preservation Technology’s Australasia Chapter.
“As such, proper planning is vital to mitigate such outcomes,” he explained.
He said this at a public talk titled ‘Managing the Impacts of Cultural Heritage Tourism’ at George Town World Heritage Incorporated (GTWHI) premises in Penang.
“Southeast Asia is one of the fastest growing regions for cultural tourism, and when not managed properly, can adversely impact local communities and the heritage value of places,” he noted.
Dr Ellsmore pointed to examples like Bangkok, which attracts large numbers of visitors who end up clogging certain areas and leaving lots of undesirable waste behind.
“Their presence and actions, especially in the current social media and selfie era, can also lead to local cultural practices being demeaned.
“Ultimately the local community suffers, as they can’t live comfortably in their own environment.
“At some point, locals will become anta-gonistic towards visitors, as they’ve had enough.
“Other issues include commodification, where everything is turned into a product for sale, as well as higher rents and property prices.
“Inappropriate development also happens as changes are made to structures simply to accommodate the increased numbers.
“Tourism can be like a fire if you don’t have a plan in place to manage it well,” he pointed out in the recent forum.
On the flipside, Dr Ellsmore cited examples like Bhutan’s “high value, low impact” tourism as one to emulate.
He said strict visa and tour arrangement requirements ensure visitors get the best out of their visits, without damaging the country’s unique society and environ-ment.
Another is the city of Charlestown in the American state of South Carolina, which gained its heritage listing in 1931 and has strict regulations governing building modification works and urban density.
“Cities like George Town can learn from such examples, to help it maintain the authenticity and charm that makes it special.
“Besides preserving the intangible culture, it is also important to promote high quality conservation work for structures, and nurture the unique cultural activities and events.
“Because the journey of tourism is one to be enjoyed and shared equally,” he added.