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Published On: Fri, Sep 1st, 2017

‘Unesco-cide’: does world heritage status do cities more harm than good?

The gambling-ridden clan jetties of Malaysias George Town were saved from ruin by the award of Unesco world heritage status, but their new fame left locals overwhelmed by a tide of invasive tourism. Can we ever get the balance right?

Chew Jetty in Malaylsias George Town attracts tourists by the boatload. Historic homes are now commercial stalls branded with neon signs; one-time fishermen peddle T-shirts, magnets and postcards. Tour buses deposit vacationers from early in the morning until well after sunset.

The daily intrusion has clearly taken a toll: windows are boarded, no photo signs are pervasive, and tenants quickly vanish at the sight of a foreign face.

I would like to remind people that we are not monkeys, and this is not a zoo, says Lee Kah Lei, who runs a souvenir stall outside her home on the Chew Jetty.

Although Kah Lei notes that the more people who come here, the more the shopkeepers sell, she wishes camera-wielding tourists were respectful of her privacy and especially not duck into her home uninvited.

Once, the clan jetties on the outskirts of George Town on Penang island, were a bustling seafront hub. A ramshackle collection of stilt houses and sheds, stretching along a line of wooden piers each bearing the surname of its Chinese clan, they are one of the last intact bastions of Malaysias old Chinese settlements.

The seven remaining jetties survived two world wars and Japanese occupation, but as the decades wore on the piers deteriorated. And when the formidable threat of encroaching developers raised its head, the owners of the jetties had only one place to turn: they made an 11th-hour bid to Unesco for protection.

The Lim Jetty, one of seven remaining clan jetties on Malaysias Penang Island. Photograph: Laignee Barron

The effort succeeded. In 2008 the clan jetties were awarded Unesco world heritage status though not before two of the clan enclaves were razed to make way for a housing complex.

Now, however, residents say the victory was not what they hoped for at all. Where fishermen, oyster harvesters and fortune tellers once plied their trade, souvenir vendors and snack bars have taken root. The locals say they were caught unawares by a tide of tourism that has washed over their stilt village. Its a similar complaint that has resounded across Europe this summer, as cities from Barcelona to Venice try to balance the positive effects of tourism with the inevitable downsides.

We would be gone today if not for the Unesco listing, admits Chew Siew Pheng, a resident of the Chew Jetty. She recalled a constant spectre of evictions during her childhood, as the jetties fell into disrepair.

Unesco may have spared the last seven jetties from the wrecking ball, but Siew Pheng says it has also affected our privacy. Our jetty has become commercialised. People are moving. During the December holidays like Chinese New Year and Malay Raya, its not even a place to live.

The clan jetties, one of the last intact bastions of Malaysias old Chinese settlements. Photograph: Jordan Lye/Getty Images

Many of the 1,052 destinations across the world that have been stamped with United Nations world heritage status struggle to strike the balance between the economic benefits of catering to visitors and preserving the culture that drew the recognition.

The heritage designation began in 1972 to identify and protect places of outstanding universal value. However, by raising the international profile of a location, the label also fuels a rush of visitors and opens the door to commercialisation that can dilute the sites authenticity.

It is an inevitable destiny: the very reasons why a property is chosen for inscription on the world heritage list are also the reasons why millions of tourists flock to those sites year after year, wrote Francesco Bandarin, the former world heritage director at Unesco, in a 2002 manual called Managing Tourism at World Heritage Sites.

The phenomenon has even been given a name by Italian writer Marco dEramo, who argues that Unesco preserves buildings but allows the communities around them to be destroyed, often by tourism. He calls it Unesco-cide.

Laos Luang Prabang, for example, a world heritage town of around 50,000 people, now expects to attract more than 700,000 tourists by 2018. Researcher Chloe Maurel has written about the adverse affects of the status on the historic Casco Viejo neighbourhood in Panama City, which relegated its poorest inhabitants to the city limits following its Unesco validation while the central district was flooded with tourists.

National Geographic has collated examples such as Xian, China, site of the famous terracotta warriors, where a poorly situated new museum may have negatively impacted the precious site. Writers Lauri Hafvenstein and Brian Handwerk also pointed to the controversial activity close to the Belizes Barrier Reef, where developers are closing in and exploiting the regions world heritage status to sell swamp land to customers over the internet.

For George Town and its clan jetties, the Unesco imprimatur seemingly provided a second wind. Established as the straits base for the British East India Company in 1786, the outpost attracted swells of artisans, sailors and traders in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Fishermen and porters from southern Chinas Fujian province carved out an enclave above the reclaimed seafront. Each extended family or clan occupied their own jetty, and the makeshift settlements grew as relatives emigrated and added to the stilt homes interconnected by a wooden walkway.

A resident of the Chew Jetty sells snacks to tourists outside her historic stilt home. Photograph: Laignee Barron

When George Town lost its free port status in 1969, the city fell into decline, wracked by high unemployment for nearly 30 years. After the UN branding, George Town experienced a rebirth as a tourist haven: between six and seven million people stay in the citys hotels each year. The clan jetties long dismissed as a gambling-ridden, squatters slum were suddenly a top attraction.

Jo Caust, an associate professor at the University of Melbourne, said the world heritage status can prove a double-edged sword. The status is often sought out as a potential cash-cow by governments eager to ring dollars out of architectural history, she argued earlier this year in the Journal of Cultural Heritage. And while reorientation toward tourism can help revitalise communities, without sufficient management plans the visitation can eventually destroy a site.

Communities impacted by tourism in Europe are now trying to fight back against the destructive effect of uncontrolled tourism. The impact in a third world country is likely to be more extreme, Caust said. What is the motivation behind the development and the achievement of the status? Making more money or cultural heritage protection?

The clan jetties were given Unesco world heritage status in 2008. Photograph: Alamy

Clement Liang, a member of the Penang Heritage Trust who helped lobby for the clan jetties inclusion in George Towns world heritage zone, agreed that when commercial interests are on the line, they override the idealistic notion of preserving the character of a heritage site.

Increasingly, Unesco has promoted the idea of sustainable tourism, and even dubbed 2017 the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development. But heritage experts say the goal is still more hypothetical than practical.

Currently Unesco has no clear guidelines or effective methods to control the commercialisation of world heritage sites, and its talk on sustainability is more a verbal exercise than enforceable, Liang says.

The Penang Heritage Trust says the future of the jetties ultimately rests in the hands of the clan leaders.

The residents, however, are not united on the areas future: some have watched the commercial transformation of the Chew Jetty with envy, others with horror. Certainly not all the residents, especially the younger generation, share nostalgia for high maintenance, old homes that lack even basic modern amenities like sewerage systems.

Ang Huah, a tour guide and resident of the Lim Jetty, says his solution is to avoid bringing people to his clans quieter enclave, funnelling visitors to the Chews instead. Its not peaceful. And people dont even really buy stuff.

Siew Pheng, who runs a homestay out of her house, is worried that if the clans dont make a decision on how to handle the tourism boom soon, the identity, the history of this place will be gone.

She says one proposal would be to introduce an entrance fee to help limit visitors and create a fund to maintain and renovate the jetties, making them more appealing to occupy. She adds that while commercialisation of her clans jetty cannot be reversed, residents need to do more to ensure the jetties are maintained and improved for the sake of residents, not just tourists.

Only we can preserve this place. We have to decide now how to manage it, she says.

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Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2017/aug/30/unescocide-world-heritage-status-hurt-help-tourism

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‘Unesco-cide’: does world heritage status do cities more harm than good?