The Double-Edged Sword of World Heritage Site Status

The designation of a historic structure as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO brings significant prestige, international recognition and sometimes the loss of a way of life for local residents.

Take the town of Luang Prabang, Laos, which received its new cultural status from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in 1995. The town has examples of architecture that blends European and Laotian styles, as well as a rich history that dates back centuries:

Many legends are associated with the creation of the city, including one that recounts that Buddha would have smiled when he rested there during his travels, prophesying that it would one day be the site of a rich and powerful city. Known as Muang Sua, then Xieng Thong, from the 14th to the 16th century the town became the capital of the powerful kingdom of Lane Xang (Kingdom of a Million Elephants), whose wealth and influence were related to its strategic location on the Silk Route.

Yet along with tourist dollars often comes change — big change — that pushes up property prices and pushes out residents.

In Luang Prabang, The Associated Press writes, “virtually every home and mom-and-pop store in the historic center has been converted into a guesthouse, restaurant, cafe, bar or travel agency. The former prison was recently transformed into a luxury hotel and the French Cultural Center has become the Hibiscus Massage Parlor.”

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World Heritage Sites Borobudur in Java, above, and Mahabodhi Vihar in Bodhgaya, at top. (Photos by Bruno J. Navarro)

I didn’t see any such wholesale changes at three out of 1,031 World Heritage Sites I had visited so far — certainly not in Java‘s magnificent temple complexes at Borobudur and Prambanan. In fact, they were far enough from the beaten trail that I only saw at most a couple of dozen tourists, mostly Indonesian, during the days I spent exploring the sites. The only other Westerners I saw were a couple of Canadian travelers, briefly, at Prambanan.

At Mahabodhi Vihar in Bodhgaya, though, there were enough tourists to make an impact on the area, though from my vantage point it seemed that the effects might be more detrimental if most of them weren’t Buddhist pilgrims.

The dual-edged nature of UNESCO recognition was summed up in a quote by Prince Nithakhong Tiaoksomsanith, one of Luang Prabang’s local leaders:

“If you open the door you will have some fresh wind, but you will also get mosquitoes.”

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