Expert raises dangers of heritage status

If we do a small town, the risk is very high

Published on 21 October 2011

Author(s): The Phuket News/Alasdair Forbes

Type:  News

World Heritage site specialist Professor Yukio Nishimura has expressed reservations about the value of Phuket applying for Unesco World Heritage status for Old Phuket Town.

Prof Nishimura was in Phuket last weekend to deliver the keynote speech at the annual international conference of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (Icomos) at the Phuket Merlin Hotel.

With the aid of many slides, he went through some of the successes among World Heritage sites, and some of the downsides of being awarded status.

Unesco originally used the word “authenticity” as its aim for preservation of historical sites. Although this might work for monuments such as Angkor Wat or Machu Picchu, it was soon realised that authenticity in living communities was an impossible aim.

In 2005 a change was made, substituting the word “integrity”, a much more flexible concept. But even this has its problems.

In Lijiang in China, for example, the structures of the old town remained (though rebuilt recently after an earthquake), but the cultural setting had changed massively with the original Naxi people being marginalised to tourist show status, and the economy being dominated by the much more wealthy ethnic Han.

Speaking with The Phuket News after his presentation, the professor from the University of Tokyo School of Engineering, who is also president of Icomos Japan, said he felt that small sites surrounded by modern cities had problems preserving integrity.

“We have to accept change, but maybe the speed and magnitude of the change can be controlled. That’s the idea of integrity. Authenticity means freezing change. The idea of integrity means setting some sort of criteria for thinking of values.”

Is there a tendency for World Heritage status to turn a place into a theme park? “There might be some threat,” he said, citing Lijiang as an example. “If we do a small town, the risk is very high.”

Professor Yukio Nishimura ‘If we do a small town, the risk is very high.’.jpg
Prof. Yukio Nishimura

Turning the old part of Phuket Town – just half a dozen streets – into a World Heritage site “may be difficult,” he said.

He added, “I’m not promoting World Heritage listing for Phuket.” But, he added, a debate over listing, using the “very clear” structure of discussion set by Unesco, would have value, even if Phuket ultimately decided not to go for a listing.

“It creates much more value in the old town because they will try to avoid unnecessary change, unnecessary demolition. It creates much more intense care of the old townscape. Eventually this leads to better quality.”

Does World Heritage status itself change society? “It depends on the site. A small settlement is most vulnerable and I should say that you have to be very careful when you nominate a small community for listing. In that sense I see dangers.”

For a detailed look at Phuket's heritage bid, click here.

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