He said while tourism has many benefits, there is a danger that world heritage sites will be overrun by visitors.
“UNESCO (The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) promotes tourism because it’s a powerful tool for bringing people together. It’s a very powerful industry. But we do not want tourism and visitors to destroy the sites they overrun.
“Some sites become so popular they are literally being swamped by visitors. We do not want to kill the goose with the golden eggs,” he said.
The World Heritage workshop ended yesterday, with the drafting of a ‘tentative list’ of possible world heritage sites in the Cook Islands. World heritage sites have worldwide recognition that can translate into more visitors – but the process of getting on the list is complex and normally takes five years or more.
Van Oers said it is important to educate communities and visitors to world heritage sites.
“In some parts of the world tourism is still seen as a major cash cow. We try to emphasise that visitors need to be educated to say, ‘Please remember this is a traditional community’. Education works both ways: Educate the community about what to expect, but also educate the visitors.”
While the goal of tourism is to attract visitors, van Oers said it should be done in a way that also benefits local communities.
“Then we avoid the situation where tourists have all the facilities they need, and right next door local communities are living in abject poverty.”
Dr Anita Smith, a senior lecturer at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, said being on the World Heritage List can sometimes generate tourism, but does not always mean a high number of visitors to a site.
“In the Solomon Islands, people have been very disappointed that the expectations they had of the industry of cultural tourism have not really taken place. It’s too remote.”
The most important thing about world heritage sites for the local community is to have their place recognised and protected for their children, said Smith.
She said the community needs to consider the costs and benefits of having a site on the World Heritage List, and how they want their story to be told.
It is crucial to maintain the meaning and authenticity of the site, said van Oers.
“It’s all about local distinctiveness. In many parts of the world we have fantastic heritage sites and local governments intervene--these interventions can be very damaging to the site.”
He said good communication is the key to maximising the benefits of tourism, and avoiding the pitfalls.
“As long as there is a good dialogue with all stakeholders and the local communities involved, you can mitigate above the negative impacts,” he said.