World Heritage Sites: overtourism

Death by tourism

24 May 2019

Inscription as a World Heritage Site can be a boon to local economies. But when annual visitors outnumber residents by as many as 500 to 1 it can have a huge impact on the area, insists Sjur Kristoffer Dyrkolbotn

Nærfjord is widely considered to be one of the most beautiful fjords in western Norway. Surrounded by steep mountains and small farmsteads, it stretches about 18km from Sognefjord through the small municipality of Aurland to the village of Gudvangen. Described by UNESCO as among the most scenically outstanding landscapes in the world, Nærfjord and the surrounding area have been on the World Heritage List since 2005, along with Geirangerfjord about 120km to the north.

Since the area obtained World Heritage Site status, tourism there has exploded. Aurland, home to fewer than 2,000 permanent residents, now welcomes roughly 1m visitors every year. More than 250,000 arrive on cruise ships that travel on Nærfjord and Aurlandsfjord, docking at Gudvangen or Flåm. These 2 villages, which have about 120 and 400 permanent residents respectively, have become major hubs for international tourism in Norway.

The visitors are important to the local economy. During the past 20 years, the economic value of tourism in Aurland has increased from Kr80m to Kr700m annually. Supporting tourism has become a political priority. The mayor of Aurland stated in 2018 that he aims to help tourism in the area expand so it can make Kr1bn annually within a few years. Yet local people are divided, with some arguing that too many visitors damage the local community and the environment. A few farmers have even publicly protested, with banners and signs decrying excessive tourism.

Some of the signs read ‘No grandi navi’, Italian for ‘No big ships’. At first, this seems surprising: why would Norwegian farmers express their discontent in Italian? There is no predominance of Italian tourists, so English would make more sense. But the choice of language is part of the message: it expresses solidarity with protesters in Venice, where a long-running campaign against cruise ships is known as the No Grandi Navi movement.

Aurland and Venice are both on the World Heritage List. Inscribed in 1987 as a cultural heritage site, Venice has around 30m visitors yearly. With 260,000 permanent residents, that means for every person living in the Italian city 115 tourists arrive every year. This pales in comparison to Aurland, though, where the ratio is more than 500 tourists annually for each permanent resident.

Italian journalist Marco D’Eramo says excessive tourism is destroying many heritage sites, and calls UNESCO a serial killer

Italian journalist Marco D’Eramo says excessive tourism is destroying many heritage sites. Referring to UNESCO as a ‘serial killer’, he argues that inscription on the World Heritage List has become a ‘death warrant’ for local communities. He also coined the term ‘UNESCOcide’ to describe death by tourism resulting from heritage status. While his article is polemical, his concerns seem to resonate with locals across Europe.

In an apparent contrast to D’Eramo’s claims, UNESCO did in fact warn of excessive tourism in Venice in 2014, threatening to classify the city as a heritage site in danger. However, it did not throw its weight behind local protesters. Instead, it collaborated with national and local authorities to develop a preservation initiative alongside a national strategic plan for the development of tourism. Today, there are turnstiles in the streets separating tourists from locals, restricting access to parts of the city. While both are more strictly controlled, Venice itself is arguably a step closer to becoming a theme park.

In the area around Nærfjord, a similar mechanism applies, demonstrating how UNESCO can harm the local heritage. Nærfjord bears witness to the fact that farmers in Norway used to enjoy interwoven property rights that empowered and compelled them to govern their resources in common. Feudalism never reached the Norwegian fjords, at least not until the arrival of large-scale hydropower and cruise ships. There are no splendid castles to preserve in this landscape, but many charming farmsteads.

While farmers in western Norway were rarely at the mercy of landowners, they were at the mercy of their own ability to engage in collective decision-making. They depended on each other, and this in turn gave rise to a unique heritage, with communal farming and participatory politics evolving from the ancient ting system, or assembly. Until the 19th century, thriving cluster farms along the fjords were still a common sight, with farmers living in close-knit communities, cooperating in their day-to-day agricultural activities.

The World Heritage List

The most impressive traditional farmstead remaining in Aurland is Otternes, consisting of 27 buildings that originally made up 4 farms. Home to about 30 people during the 19th century, the site has been uninhabited since the 1990s. Today, it is in a state of disrepair, despite being bequeathed to the Aurland municipality more than 30 years ago with a maintenance requirement. Meanwhile, Gudvangen is now home to a fake Viking village, rewriting history at the heart of the heritage site.

The story of Otternes symbolises the mistakes made at Nærfjord. Instead of preserving a heritage of mutual dependence rooted in egalitarian property rights, UNESCO and national institutions undermined it in the name of protection and tourism. Since 2002, the Nærfjord area has been a protected landscape area under national environmental law, with strict limitations on traditional uses of property. This does not include any restrictions on tourism, while limits on other modern industries appear provisional. Permission for a large hydropower plant inside the heritage area has already been granted, and there are plans for large-scale mining of anorthosite, a valuable igneous rock. Farmers, on the other hand, are carefully controlled, and may not cultivate or irrigate their land, change the appearance of buildings, or engage in small-scale hydropower development. There are also strict limits on forestry. While dispensation is possible, even banal decisions about agricultural land use now require special permissions from the government.

Just as turnstiles shepherd the people of Venice, environmental law is used to shepherd the Aurland farmers, without dealing with the threats to nature and culture. Leading locals benefit from unregulated tourism in the short term, damaging the community and nature in the long term. With protesting farmers pushed to the margins, the excesses of local leaders become increasingly apparent.

In peak periods, nitrogen oxide emissions from cruise ships now reach levels that put people’s health at risk. Failures of local governance in turn lead to demands for further intervention from the central government to protect the environment by shifting more power away from the local community. Indeed, while the municipality has been reluctant to take action, new regulations on air pollution from cruise ships came into force on 1 March this year, after an intervention by the Norwegian Maritime Authority. The strict regulations apply only to the fjords in the World Heritage area, a differential treatment imposed despite the protests of the local municipality. There are already indications that the worst polluters will adapt accordingly: they will simply dock at a neighbouring fjord instead, sending their passengers to Flåm by bus. Hence it is unclear whether the new regulations will actually help the environment and the people of Aurland.

Is UNESCO responsible for what happens in Aurland and Venice? Indeed it is: by designating something as a heritage site, it assumes shared responsibility for what happens there, pursuant to the 1972 World Heritage Convention. However, if UNESCO is a serial killer it is only because national institutions are such willing accessories. It was the national government that disenfranchised the farmers around Nærfjord. Similarly, it was the government that introduced turnstiles in Venice. However, UNESCO helped create the conditions that made such interventions seem necessary.

UNESCO would do well to build better partnerships with local people before inscribing any site on the World Heritage List. Locals must be empowered and held to account, not marginalised or given incentives to destroy their communities.

Sjur Kristoffer Dyrkolbotn is associate professor at the Western Norway University of Applied Sciences

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