In Luang Prabang, world heritage listing may have destroyed its soul

The Haw Pha Bang temple. Source: Skift.com 20160128

Luang Prabang is one of my favourite places in Southeast Asia, but the increased tourism caused by its World Heritage site status is one of the things that is destroying its essence. It’s not just Luang Prabang, however, this article is a critique of tourism management at World Heritage sites.

The Haw Pha Bang temple. Source: Skift.com 20160128
The Haw Pha Bang temple. Source: Skift.com 20160128

UNESCO World Heritage Sites and the Downside of Cultural Tourism
AP, via Skift, 28 January 2016

It is officially described as the best-preserved city in Southeast Asia, a bygone seat of kings tucked into a remote river valley of Laos. Luang Prabang weaves a never-never land spell on many a visitor with its tapestry of French colonial villas and Buddhist temples draped in a languid atmosphere.

But most of the locals don’t live here anymore. They began an exodus from this seeming Shangri-La after their hometown was listed a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, and sold itself wholesale to tourism.

It’s not an uncommon pattern at some of the 1,031 sites worldwide designated as places of “outstanding universal value” by the U.N. cultural agency: The international branding sparks mass tourism, residents move out as prices escalate or grab at new business opportunities, hastening the loss of their hometown’s authentic character to hyper-commercialization. But locals may also prosper and some moribund communities are injected with renewed energy.

Full story here.

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Author: Noel Tan

Dr Noel Hidalgo Tan is the Senior Specialist in Archaeology at SEAMEO-SPAFA, the Southeast Asian Regional Centre for Archaelogy and Fine Arts.

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