The Role of Tourism in the Management of Cultural Heritage Sites


The concept of the cultural tourism is one of the oldest and the fastest growing trends in the global industry. In the recent years, the process of globalization, relatively high income, a cheaper transportation, higher levels of education and a growing awareness of the UNESCO World Heritage program have been resulted in an increased number of visitors to cultural heritage sites, particularly, in the less developed countries [Timothy… 2003; Timothy… 2009; Huang 2012].
It is noteworthy that Georgia is among the developing countries in which the number of tourists is increasing significantly from year to year. According to the Georgian National Tourism Administration, in January-October of 2018, the number of tourist visits grew by 17.5% compared to the same period of the last year.

On the one hand, this emerging trend is thought to be an opportunity to reduce poverty and enhance the quality of life in developing countries. It is believed that an international tourism increases an economic potential, creates jobs and enterprises, earns a foreign exchange, stimulates an infrastructure provision and generates tax revenues [Eilat…2004]. On the other hand, there is a vast array of harmful physical, environmental, economic and socio-cultural impacts triggered by tourism. The increased wear and tear on monuments, pollution, noise and waste, congestion, commercialization of culture, rise of prices, changes in lifestyle and loss of tradition, etc. have been identified as a negative outcome of tourism [Coccossis, 2009:49]. In addition to this, tourism can have detrimental consequences on heritage sites if it is not managed properly.

Therefore, it is important to raise awareness about the positive and adverse effects of tourism in Georgia as well as about the need for their proper regulation. This article focuses on the cultural heritage monuments of Georgia with the delicate surface, the architectural complexes of the Immovable Cultural Monuments of National Significance: Uplistsikhe (the 6th-4th centuries B.C.), Davit Gareji (the 6th century), Vani Caves (the 8th-16th centuries) and Vardzia (the 12th-13th centuries). It also refers to the issues of a sustainable development of the cultural tourism in relation to the aforementioned sites.

In October of 2018, on the basis of the experts’ recommendation, due to the uncontrolled tourism and a lack of safety norms at the site, a fine example of the 8th-16th century  -  old Georgian architectural complex Vani Caves - was temporarily closed for visitors. The National Agency for Cultural Heritage Preservation of Georgia is planning to conduct hydrogeological and archaeological studies on the site from 2019 [Kuchukhidze, 2018]. However, it is not yet clear when the state of conservation of the monument will be improved and when it will be possible to open the site for the visitors.

In 2007 the above-mentioned architectural complexes carved in various parts of Georgia were included in the Tentative List of the UNESCO World Heritage program, which is a prerequisite for their inclusion in UNESCO World Heritage List.

The inclusion of the monuments in UNESCO World Heritage List raises awareness about heritage sites, which is often directly reflected on the increased number of visitors. Consequently, it is of an utmost importance to prepare management plans for each site including the action plans for a sustainable heritage tourism, a visitor management, etc.

Thus, I believe that it is important to understand the international case-studies in the context of current challenges at Vani Caves, Vardzia, Uplistsikhe and Davit Gareji complexes. The international cases discussed below illustrate the issues that require attention to the development of a sustainable cultural tourism on heritage sites.

The article consists of two parts. In the first part, the negative impacts of an uncontrolled tourism on heritage sites are demonstrated with the examination of two case studies of the World Heritage Sites. In the second part, benefits and opportunities of tourism for the aforementioned heritage sites in Georgia are discussed. Further, it is argued that despite challenges, synergy and a beneficial balance can be found between a tourism development and a heritage preservation. The methodology used for this research is based on the review of the literature, the comparative analysis and the author's observations.


A Negative Impact of Tourism on Cultural Heritage Sites

The global media sources have reported significant deterioration of a historic fabric of many archaeological World Heritage Sites as a result of the vast volume of tourist flows [Comer, 2012:3]. Probably, the most illustrative examples of a harmful influence of tourism on historical sites are Petra Archaeological Park in Jordan and Machu Picchu Historic Sanctuary in Peru.

Petra a half-build half-curved into rocks is one of the most famous archaeological sites [UNESCO, 2017]. Since the signature of the peace agreement with Israel in 1994 and  nomination of Petra as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2007, the number of visitors has increased sharply by 68% and 62 % in 1994 and 2007, respectively [Akrawi, 2012: 59].

Petra as a bearer of the World Heritage Site status was expected to have the comprehensive management plan with the issues of conservation and a public access considered in it. However, the low economy of the country and its early inscription on the list of World Heritage Sites in 1985, when the Operational Guideline for Managing the World Heritage Properties had not had clear requirements adopted yet, conditioned an ill-control and a lack of management capacity of the site [Veleikis, 2012]. Veleikis [2012] reported that the increased number of visitors’ anthropogenic influence has largely affected the physical integrity of the site.

There are two major factors influencing the condition of the site: visitors’ contact and human-induced changes. As Akrawi [2012] notes, a gradual destruction of the site is caused by a large number of visitors touching tombs and canyon walls each year. The absence of a visitor management and tourists’ free navigation in the site seriously deteriorates the historic fabric of the property [Mustafa, 2011]. Furthermore, no guidelines for dos and don’ts leads to the cases of vandalism such as scratching visitors’ names and as well as the dates of their visits on the historic fabric and ancient wall paintings of the site. According to Akrawi [2012:62], some of the paintings have been covered by implications of graffiti, including incisions and carving at Petra.   

Similar instances are observed in all the aforementioned heritage sites in Georgia. Among those are the fifteenth-century inscriptions on the walls of the small church built in Vani Caves presenting the oldest samples of Georgian lyrical poetry (from “The Knight in the Panther’s Skin” and “Rostomiani”), which are damaged by the visitors’ vandalism [Otkhmezuri...2012, 149].

Paradise argues that the limestone and the sandstone of Petra’s hewn structure, tombs and monuments and constructed buildings are partly affected by a local arid climate. Moreover, through touching, climbing and abrasion, visitors are accelerating the natural rate of surface recession and disaggregation [Paradise, 2009:81].  The similar processes are observed at the heritage sites of Georgia.

According to Paradise, the study of the Roman-style Theatre at Petra identified that one of the important weathering influences apart from lithology, insolation and moisture regimes is a human contact. It was found that an increased number of tourists at the site accelerated the deterioration of the Theatre condition [Paradise, 2012].  The monitoring studies revealed that over the 15-year period - from 1990 to 2005 - the percentage of displayed original stonemason dressing marks at the Theatre made ca. 2,000 years ago has decreased by 10% because of tourists’ use [Akrawi, 2012; Paradise, 2012]. Paradise points out that the rate of decay will not decrease unless visitors are restricting from climbing and jumping across the hewn Theatre seats and itineraries. In addition to this, he claims that newer, gripping hiking shoe soles increase the traction between the visitors’ feet and the surface. Consequently, a rapid disappearance and a loss of rock carved features occurs [Mustafa, 2011]. Alternatively, it can be suggested to restrict an access to the delicate parts of the property. Instead, comprehensive interpretations could be offered, which can distract visitors from climbing on and touching the fragile surfaces of the site. 

Another direct influence of visitors is humidity changes in chambers at the Valleys of Petra as a result of  tourists’ presence at the site. According to Paradise, the sporadic recording of the interior humidity carried out in various tombs at Petra from 1998 to 2007 indicated that when the number of visitors grew from 10 to 20, the humidity inside the Urn Tomb increased from 6%- 8% to 18%-25%. As Paradise notes, according to the prior studies, an increased moisture in a small space raises the production of a salt efflorescence, the rock becomes more permeable and deterioration of the sandstone due to particle disaggregation accelerates [Paradise, 2012:90]. 

As Paradise points out, an important finding of the study is that humidity increases greatly when a group of 20-30 tourists stays in the tomb chambers more than 5-10 minutes. According to his observation, many groups consisting of 10-30 persons tend to remain in the chambers at Petra more than five minutes. In addition to this, it was identified that visitors contributed to the rise of humidity within 15 minutes of their entry [Paradise, 2012:89].

The moisture and condensation created by visitors’ breathing and sweating are typical concerns for delicate surfaces at heritage sites, including Vardzia, Vani Caves, Davit Gareji and Uplistsikhe architectural complexes.

Another significant damage to archaeological recourses at Petra is caused by using donkeys and horses as the means of a vehicle for tourists. As Comer [2012] points out, the original Nabatean steps appear to be thoroughly destroyed by hooves of donkeys over the years. In addition to this, the amount of money local horse vendors earn depends on the number of rides they sell. After serving one customer or one group of customers, they ride horses back to the pickup point at full gallop. As Comer [2012:182] notes, it hazards safety of visitors.

Akrawi [2012:60] mentions some effects of the tourism development at Petra, such as an installation of visitor facilities including restrooms and vendor shops that visually impact on the aesthetic nature of the archaeological landscape and its integrity. He also remarks some other factors affecting an on-site preservation negatively, such as the circulation of cars within the archaeological area of the park, inappropriate garbage disposal bins and the illegal vending of the real antiquities [Akwari, 2012:61]. Timothy [2009:58] argues that tourists’ interest in requiring relics encourages locals at many heritage tourism destinations to undertake illegal excavations and sell their discoveries to foreign visitors. This results not only in the loss of artefacts, but also in the destruction of an archaeological stratigraphy. 

Garbage seems to be an inseparable component of tourism in almost every less developed country, where poor environmental regulations, the lack of money and an insufficient staff complicates cleaning-up. Scattered food containers, plastic bottles, leftover food, cigarette butts, a chewing gum, aluminium soda cans and paper products are a typical trail of tourists [Timothy, 2009: 58].  Dirtiness declines an aesthetic appeal to a monument and causes a material corrosion. Timothy [Timothy, 2009:59] argues that some litter, including a chewing gum, drinks or some leftovers can everlastingly remain on a surface of a monument. In addition to this, a cleaning effort might cause more damage to the historic material.

Thus, regulating the visitors’ movement, monitoring environmental variables, improving security measures and addressing all the above-mentioned challenges caused by tourism seem to be crucial in respect of a site management.

Another world heritage site in a developing country that is highly impacted by tourism is Historic Sanctuary of Machu Picchu. The amazing creation of Inca Empire with its giant walls, terraces and ramps, as Irina Bokova former Director-General of UNESCO reported: “is a victim of its own success” [The Independent, 2011]. An excessive visitors’ pressure considerably degrades the condition of the property. Famous Peruvian archaeologist Frederico Kauffman Doig claims that during the Inca period Machu-Picchu was occupied by no more than 500 barefooted people [La Franchi, 2001], while nowadays the number of tourists, whose anthropogenic agents are much more destructive, frequently exceeds 2000 per day [Larson…2012]. It is apparent that carrying capacity is a big challenge for Machu-Picchu preservers. In addition to this, a poor transportation system towards the remote location of the ancient city constrains enthusiastic tourists to find alternative routes in order to access the site. According to Larson [2012], tourists mostly hike from the nearest vehicular access point to the Historic Sanctuary through experiencing the cultural landscape. However, this experience contributes to the destruction of the historic path, which seems to be sensitive to a frequent use. In addition to this, garbage is spread  in Machu-Picchu as well as in its surrounding areas [Timothy…2009:58].

Alternatively, on the one hand, the transportation direct to the site seems to be a solution for the preservation of the historic landscape around the property. On the other hand, the air pollution is likely to provoke an additional harm. Exhaust from cars, buses and helicopters is a reason for chemical reactions in the physical composition of building materials [Timothy…2009:59]. With the consideration of this fact, archaeologists and environmentalists rejected the idea of using a helicopter as a means of transport in Manchu-Picchu [Higgins, 2006].

The above-mentioned cases illustrate the harmful influences of tourism on the cultural heritage. This situation is similar to many other heritage sites in the developing world.


A Positive Role of Tourism in Safeguarding Cultural Heritage Sites

Although there are many deleterious influences of tourism on cultural heritage sites, not all the impacts are negative. In fact, heritage sites can potentially gain some benefits from tourism. Although tourists’ presence at sites contributes to the physical and environmental deterioration of historical places, it is most likely that without them cultural heritage sites would be neglected and would become  victims of vegetation and an uncontrolled climate impact, especially, in developing countries, where money is in short supply and priorities are given to other more profitable projects.

As Timothy [2009] notes, cultural heritage sites in the majority of less developed countries, owing to a lack of public and private funds, mainly depend on the tourism income to survive. Moreover, a direct or an indirect economic income from the cultural tourism in a country could induce the government to care more about “heritage tourism supply” [Timothy, 2003:19], particularly, if the heritage sites (as tourist products) are of a great international interest. Thus, it can be argued that tourism can obliquely transfer  public money to the cultural heritage.

In addition to this,  heritage sites (impacted or not by tourism) still require the conservation and preservation effort, which is impossible without financial resources. As it is mentioned above, tourists are the main sources of financial incomes of heritage sites, if not the only one. Furthermore, public funds in developing countries are hardly ever allocated to heritage sites, which do not attract tourists. Therefore, on the one hand,  tourism can be argued to be destructive to the cultural heritage. On the other hand, it seems to be only opportunity to maintain the heritage sites for the future. 

Therefore, contemporary heritage managers’ task is not only thinking about the avoidance of threats and preservation of sites, but also making pleasant visitors' experience of a heritage place. This composition seems to be difficult, but feasible. In many cases, visitors' demand is in harmony with the conservation effort, such as regulation of visitors’ number and reduction of congestion, safety, purity and rich interpretive methods. On the one hand, the latter educates and entertains visitors. On the other hand, it contributes to the decline in visitors’ physical pressure at monuments [Timothy 2009; Timothy 2003:197]. A good example is a relatively new visitor management approach at the famous prehistoric site Stonehenge in England. It is noteworthy that in 2013 new visitor facilities were arranged at 2.5 km from the monument.



In conclusion, the emerging impact and potential of a cultural tourism lead to analyse strength, weakness, threats and opportunities of the sites to be managed properly. The reality of a lack of funds in developing countries constrains heritage managers to find a beneficial balance, which can be achieved through twofold sustainable heritage management: minimizing visitors’ negative impact on the sites and maximizing their positive impressions, emotions and knowledge acquisition via using different interesting methods. This approach should be widely implemented in Georgia to avoid detrimental consequences similar to that described above on the example  of Petra and Machu-Picchu.

This work was supported by Shota Rustaveli National Science Foundation (SRNSF) [PhD_F_17_52].


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