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Who Speaks For The “Real” Shangri-La?
UNESCO World Heritage Sites and Tourism

06 January 2021 3:10 PM | Tiffanie Tam and Deana Davis

The Potala Palace

The Sino-U.S. scholar Orville Schell stated that, “like any other fantasies cobbled together from fragments of suggestive reality, our fantasies of places on or off this earth generally reflect far more about ourselves and our own yearnings than we perhaps care to know.”[1]

The unique landscape of Tibet is one example of a place that has inspired heightened fascination in the Western psyche. The myth and lure of the Tibetan plateau stem from James Hilton’s 1933 novel Lost Horizon, which portrayed Tibet as Shangri-La, the paradise hidden away behind the Himalayas. The mythological monastery depicted in the novel, the crown jewel of Hilton’s Shangri-La, has an earthly counterpart in the Potala Palace in Lhasa, the winter palace of the Dalai Lama and a U.N. Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (“UNESCO”) World Heritage Site since 1994. Whether out of mystical intrigue or real-world interest, the Potala Palace continues to attract flocks of pilgrims, with a reported 1.45 million visitors in 2017 alone.

While it is famed for its architectural beauty and theological significance, the Potala Palace—along with other UNESCO World Heritage Sites—raises substantial questions of control. Although China governs the Tibetan plateau, UNESCO and, at times, the tourism industry, reconstruct Tibet for an international audience. Interesting issues regarding agency and authenticity arise: who has the right to speak for Tibet? More broadly, who has the right to craft the international image of a World Heritage Site?

The Dualism of UNESCO World Heritage

UNESCO’s mission is to construct “defences of peace” “in the minds of men” in the hopes that an increased understanding of the cultures of different peoples will lead to an increased understanding of the peoples themselves and a reluctance to wage war.[2] It is with this goal of peace in mind, mirrored in the ever-appealing Shangri-La and the teachings of the Dalai Lama, that UNESCO seeks to diffuse knowledge, in part by ensuring the conservation and protection of art, monuments, and the world’s heritage.

In 1972 UNESCO adopted the Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, which, along with the Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention, introduce the programme of World Heritage Sites.[3] To qualify as a World Heritage Site, a cultural or natural heritage site must meet the high standard of “Outstanding Universal Value,” a UNESCO term of art. According to the Operational Guidelines, “Outstanding Universal Value means cultural and/or natural significance which is so exceptional as to transcend national boundaries and to be of common importance for present and future generations of all humanity.”[4] The idea of having Outstanding Universal Value intricately relates to the site’s authenticity: according to UNESCO, monuments are historically significant objects that evoke “notions of spatiality and temporality in a way that combine to stir up some sort of remembrance of the past.”[5]

UNESCO World Heritage thus celebrates two seemingly contradictory concepts: cultural diversity at the individual country level and the world’s shared cultural heritage on an international level. In other words, it seeks to recognize the multiplicity of distinct cultural forms while, at the same time, purporting to achieve unity in diversity so a “culture of cultures” can be realized.[6]

But to export a “culture of cultures”, UNESCO must first de-contextualize a monument, isolating the site from its original context before evaluating and idealizing the monument. Then, with UNESCO’s approval, a monument is “re-aggregated into a new social context, joining hundreds of other unrelated but similarly valorized World Heritage sites.”[7] According to the selection criteria, a cultural heritage site must denote an important interchange of human values or provide testimony to a cultural tradition. Consequently, a local monument earns the status of a World Heritage Site because it represents an ideal that can be understood through interactions with tourists and the general international public.

Touristic Consumption of UNESCO World Heritage Sites

As the de-contextualization of World Heritage Sites shifts them from the physical realm into the world’s collective imagination, various constituents play a role in exporting cultural tourism around the world.

Tourism is no small phenomenon. In 2019 tourism accounted for 7% of global trade and employed one in ten people worldwide.[8] Moreover, a site’s addition to the World Heritage List is often accompanied “with a boost in visitation rates.”[9] Not only do the local populations living near World Heritage Sites often become dependent on tourism, but also numerous people around the world become similarly dependent on tourism flowing to the particular site, as well, due to the “complex value chain of interconnected industries” that tourism indirectly creates.[10]

An inherently multifaceted approach must therefore be taken in an effort to manage tourism to World Heritage Sites that includes the State, the local population, any national or international third-parties, and the general international public. UNESCO’s World Heritage mission takes this into account by, for example, supporting State Parties’ public awareness-building activities for World Heritage conservation, encouraging participation of the local population in the preservation of their cultural and natural heritage, and encouraging international cooperation.[11]

Accordingly, there are several stages and constituencies to consider when de-contextualizing a site for the benefit of “world heritage” and subsequently managing tourism to the site. First, a sponsoring agency, such as an educational or religious institution, determines the social narrative of a tour that often includes a World Heritage Site. Second, travel agencies determine the price of each package tour and, consequently, craft distinct narratives to target consumers with differing interests. For example, two tours might take their clients to the same World Heritage Site, with one tour highlighting its luxurious features and the other tour emphasizing the site’s historic charm. Through their interpretations of World Heritage Sites, representatives of the tourism industry in a way become spokespeople for World Heritage Sites.

Finally, travelers themselves and their touristic activities affect the interactions with World Heritage Sites. In particular, travelers may cultivate expectations about World Heritage Sites. For instance, travelers often view Tibet through the lens of its depiction as the hidden paradise of Shangri-La in Western literature, and consequently view Tibet as a place for retreat into spiritual solitude. In addition to an appreciation of the wilderness aesthetic, the Buddhist concept of enlightenment, as perceived by tourists, casts the Potala Palace as a sacred place in the minds of Western visitors.

Touristic consumption of World Heritage Sites complicates each site’s historic account amidst its reframing for the benefit of global heritage. There is thus no easy solution in determining who has the right to speak for and to craft the narrative of a World Heritage Site.

[1] Schell, O. (2000). Virtual Tibet: Searching for Shangri-La from the Himalayas to Hollywood Publisher: Metropolitan Books, 23

[2] UNESCO Constitution preamble ¶ 1, http://portal.unesco.org/en/ev.php-URL_ID=15244&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html.

[3] UNESCO, The Criteria for Selection https://whc.unesco.org/en/criteria/.

[4] Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention, 2019, UNESCO

[5] Di Giovine, M. (2009). The Heritage-scape: UNESCO, World Heritage, and Tourism. Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 28.

[6] Di Giovine, M. (2009). The Heritage-scape: UNESCO, World Heritage, and Tourism. Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 36.

[7] Di Giovine, M. (2009). The Heritage-scape: UNESCO, World Heritage, and Tourism. Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 37.

[8] U.N., Policy Brief: COVID-19 and Transforming Tourism, at 2 (2020).

[9] Pedersen, A. (2002). Managing Tourism at World Heritage Sites: a Practical Manual for World Heritage Site Managers. Publisher: UNESCO World Heritage Centre, 11.

[10] Id.

[11] UNESCO, World Heritage, https://whc.unesco.org/en/about/.

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