UNESCO's Disneyfinger

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UNESCO World Heritage status is usually considered an honor, but it has its drawbacks.

Granting a location the title of UNESCO World Heritage Site is meant as an honor, stating that the site is worthy of ecological and cultural preservation. Unfortunately for the cultural sites, it often instead leads to Disneyfication.

World Heritage Background
The World Heritage Committee has its roots in the international collaborative effort that saved a series of Ancient Egyptian temples from flooding created by the construction of the Aswan Dam. Today, countries nominate sites that are of high natural or cultural importance to the common heritage of humanity, and the Committee meets once a year to approve or deny nominees. Selection is accompanied by funding and advisement to promote preservation.

I define Disneyfication as the transformation of a community to a state in which it cannot live without tourism. A Disneyfied community charges admission, sells mass-produced souvenirs, and carries on traditional rituals for profit instead of pride.

UNESCO’s Disneyfinger
When a site gets the green light by the Committee, two groups immediately rush in: profiteers and tourists. The profiteers turn village workshops into souvenir shops, farms into hotels, and ancient streets into outdoor malls. The tourists eat it up, believing they are coming into contact with vibrant pockets of preserved history. Instead, their experience is often more like that of going to Disney World - stay at a Hilton Hotel, eat mass-produced fast food, and buy supposedly handmade cultural items that were imported from a factory in Indonesia. More importantly, since tourists have more money, its a lot smarter for community members to cater to tourists instead of carrying on the activities that made them a sustainable community, such as farming. Eventually, these communities even start importing their food and ‘local handmade goods.’

China’s Goldfish
Two factors magnify the Disneyfinger in China. One, China has the largest population on the planet. Two, that same population is also experiencing the fastest economic growth on the planet. These two factors combine to create a massive group of eager tourists that swarm to vacation sites like goldfish on pellets. As UNESCO drops their ‘pellets’ across the country, tourists move in kind.

How I Came to Believe in the Disneyfinger
I originally thought to use UNESCO’s list as an itinerary. More recently, its become a red flag. It means crowds and admission fees. It means we’ll find the same ‘Lao Jie’, or Old Street, that was once the most ancient street in town but is now lined with tea and souvenir shops. It means we’ll meet the same adults of the community running souvenir shops and the same children of the committee employed as tour guides.

Sure there are plenty of benefits to World Heritage Site status. Rural communities gain access to the economic growth their urban counterparts have been enjoying, urban tourists do get at least a taste of rural lifestyles, and important communities are protected from being cleared out for big construction projects.

But while those communities may not be physically destroyed by wrecking balls, they very well be internally destroyed by cultural degradation. If everyone’s serving the tourists, who’s actually serving the community?