Cultural heritage tourism: Beautification, gentrification, eviction

There is no universally accepted definition of 'heritage tourism’, but most authors refer to such notions as (eco-)cultural heritage with both tangible and intangible elements that attract domestic and international visitors (Ashworth, Graham and Tunbridge, 2007; Timothy, 2015). While humankind’s cultural heritage is often “mundane, commonplace and very personal to individuals and local communities”, most tourists “seek cultural sites that are world-renowned, tangible and very old” (Timothy, 2015, p. 238). Policies surrounding such ‘global’ heritage sites are often entangled with relations of power, exercised in subtle forms in some cases, while using brute state force in others (Silverman and Ruggles, 2007).

Mowforth and Munt (2016, p. 376) quote the Swedish International Development Agency’s suggestion that ‘heritage tourism’ — when done in a sensible and sensitive manner — can be considered the urban equivalent of ‘ecotourism’. Yet the difference between cultural and natural heritage sites is not clear-cut and remains highly contested. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) listed more than 1,120 properties as World Heritage Sites as of July 2020, out of which the organisation classified 869 as cultural heritage, 213 as natural heritage and 39 as mixed cultural/natural heritage ( The International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA) and the Forest Peoples Programme (FPP) have criticised the differentiation between cultural and natural heritage as “artificial and problematic in the case of World Heritage Sites located in indigenous people’s territories, because the lives, cultures and spiritual beliefs of indigenous peoples are inseparable from their lands, territories, and natural resources” (IWGIA and FPP, 2015, pp. 5—6). Indigenous peoples have also expressed their concerns over the “lack of regulations to ensure meaningful participation and free, prior and informed consent of indigenous peoples in the nomination and designation of World Heritage sites” (ibid., pp. 10—12). Similar concerns have been raised about the nearly 700 biosphere reserves located in 122 countries, which are designated by the UNESGO as “learning sites for sustainable development” (UNESGO, n.d.).

Apart from the lack of local participation in heritage development, another problem that is typical for World Heritage Sites is the imposition of an

Cultural heritage tourism 145 international legal regime on national and local legal frameworks. World Heritage designations by the UNESCO come with the prerequisites that the state bears the responsibility for (1) the enactment of protective legislation, (2) the establishment of permanent boundaries around the site and (3) the definition of meaningful buffer zones, which can result in overruling the customary or formalised rights of residents in World Heritage Sites (Gillespie, 2009). In urban heritage sites, such as historical centres in Latin American’s major cities, gentrification, eviction and cultural dispossession have become common phenomena (Janoschka and Sequera, 2016).

The following sections will examine the controversies surrounding cultural heritage preservation, eco-cultural tourism and securitisation in Guatemala, the effects of cultural heritage tourism on Indigenous and non-indigenous people’s rights and livelihoods in China, land grabbing and resettlement in the Angkor Archaeological Park in Cambodia, and gentrification and eviction processes in urban heritage sites in Argentina and Peru.

Cultural heritage preservation, border securitisation and eco-cultural tourism in Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve

The Maya Biosphere Reserve (MBR) is located in Peten in northern Guatemala and was identified by the state-run Guatemalan Tourism Commission as ‘The Heart of the Mayan World’ for two major tourism campaigns that started in the early 2000s. The MBR was established in 1990 by Guatemalan and foreign conservationists in the midst of the country’s decade-long peace process (Devine et al., 2020). Covering an area larger than El Salvador (Guatemala’s neighbour to the south), it is the largest protected area in Central America and provides livelihoods for an estimated 180,000 people (Cuffe, 2016). The MBR is a complex patchwork of national parks — most of which are located in the western part of the reserve - and a large multiple use zone that dominates its eastern part, divided into several community-based concessions (Rahder, 2015). Most residents were not even aware of the creation of the MBR until after the laws had been enacted (Lunstrum and Ybarra, 2018). Many of them experienced the declaration of the MBR “as an act of enclosure and land dispossession” (Devine et al., 2020, p. 1023). The MBR is home to several hundred archaeologically important sites, including the UNESCO World Heritage Maya site of Tikal, which receives hundreds of thousands of domestic and foreign visitors each year (Devine, 2017). While UNESCO has recorded negative impacts of tourism on Tikal, such as waste, pollution and vandalism, many other sites remain virtually unexplored due to accessibility and security issues.

Over the past decade, the government of Guatemala has promoted tourism in these largely unvisited areas, through such initiatives as the Four Jaguar Eco-Tourism Project which ran from 2008 to 2012 (Devine, 2014). However, the promotion of cultural and eco-tourism for economic growth appears to be only part of the government’s agenda. Another major goal is to securitise the area which has allegedly been a site of illicit timber extraction, poaching, drug trafficking and antiquity looting and whose porous borders with neighbouring Belize and Mexico still remain contested (Devine, 2017). The military plays a major role in this effort, and several military outposts have been established since 2008 in the MBR, which has been the focal area of new tourism development, oftentimes by evicting village communities that are branded as insurgents and eco-threats (Devine, 2014). Meanwhile, several village cooperatives inside the biosphere’s multiple use zone depend on collectively managed forest concessions and community-based tourism for their livelihoods (Devine et al., 2020).

In late 2019, the Guatemalan government extended the 25-year license for the first and one of the largest community concessions, the Carmelita community' (Pearce, 2020). Yet Indigenous communities continue to be framed as “forest-eating ‘termites’” by non-indigenous elites (Lunstrum and Ybarra, 2018, p. 119). Countering this narrative, local communities and community tourism organisations argue that if the forest concessions did not exist, the whole MBR would have already been destroyed. This view has been supported by the Guatemala’s National Council for Protected Areas (CONAP), the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and several environmental NGOs that maintain that the communally managed forest concessions provide an effective buffer against the expansion of farming and cattle ranching (Cuffe, 2016; Pearce, 2020).

Forest concessions have benefitted from close collaboration with international NGOs, such as Rainforest Alliance, that help them in finding markets for non-timber forest products (NTFPs), such as chicle, a latex from the sapodilla tree, that can be sold in international fair trade and organic markets (Pearce, 2020). A recent study also contented that communities involved in forest concessions have a genuine interest in maintaining intact forests to sustain their income from sustainably harvested wood, NTFPs and communitybased tourism (Bocci et al., 2018). This view has been confirmed in a study by Devine et al. (2020) who found that in the eastern parts of the MBR — which are primarily occupied by villages and community forestry concessions — forests have remained largely intact, while national parks in the western part of the reserve have experienced some of the highest deforestation rates in Latin America and globally, despite much stricter regulations which only allow conservation and tourism activities. The study’s authors attribute forest destruction in the MBR primarily to the phenomenon of ‘narco-cattle ranching’ which they define as illicit activities that combine large-scale cattle farming with drug trafficking and money laundering (Devine et al., 2020). It is alleged that the narco-ranchers in MBR are funded by two Mexican drug cartels that are also involved in forest conversion to cattle ranches across the border in Mexico’s Calakmul Biosphere Reserve (Pearce, 2020).

Different stakeholder groups (archaeologists, local communities, private corporations, government officials and environmental NGOs) have diverging opinions on how to move forward with tourism, development and conservation in the MBR (Cuffe, 2016). A US American archaeologist, Dr Richard Hansen, has proposed to replace logging-based livelihoods with cultural tourism and

Cultural heritage tourism 147 pharmaceutical industry bioprospecting (Cuffe, 2016). Dr Hansen’s Foundation for Anthropological Research and Environmental Studies (FARES) is supported by Guatemala’s state archaeological institute, IDAEH (Institut de Antropología e Historia), the United States Department of the Interior (DOI), Idaho State University, a former Guatemalan President and US American actor Mel Gibson (Rahder, 2015). His Mirador Basin Project has received funding from National Geographic and is backed by Pacunam, a Guatemalan corporate foundation which includes a powerful local cement company, multinational corporation Walmart and several banks and agro-industry companies, and by the US-based NGO ‘Global Heritage Fund’ (Cuffe, 2016).

Community tourism representatives and the association representing 22 community forestry organisations in Peten (Asociación de Comunidades Forestales de Peten — ACOFOP) strongly oppose Dr Hansen’s and Pacunam Foundation’s plan to connect Mirador with other Mayan sites in the MBR through improved road infrastructure to facilitate mass tourism, as they believe this would jeopardise community-based tourism activities and threaten the integrity of existing forest concessions (Rahder, 2015; Cuffe, 2016). Yet, in 2019, Dr Hansen forged a powerful alliance with a group of influential US senators who proposed to US Congress a bill (S. 3131) to authorise “the Secretary of the Interior to establish a Maya Security and Conservation Partnership program” (US Congress, 2019, p. 1). Under the proposed partnership the Guatemalan government would receive US$60 million “to fund field-based tropical and archaeological research, law enforcement, and sustainable tourism activities within the [Mirador] basin” (US Congress, 2019, p. 3), with matching funds in the form of a loan of US$60 million sought from the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (Banco Centroamericano de Integración Económica — BCIE) (Maya Biosphere Watch, 2020).

Critics of the Maya Security and Conservation Partnership program fear that it will turn Mayan cultural heritage in Guatemala into a US-funded theme park for American tourists (Garcia, 2020). While local communities have yet to be formally consulted about the project, community-based website Maya Biosphere Watch and critical media outlets allege that the ‘Partnership’ does not reveal its real private-sector driven agenda and that the ‘sustainable tourism model’ will be detrimental to the fragile ecosystem of the MBR (Maya Biosphere Watch, 2020; Garcia, 2020). Indeed, the plan is to build large hotels and a train network to allow for increased and potentially unsustainable tourist activities. There are also allegations that portions of the forest concessions would be absorbed into national parks if the plans of the Maya Security and Conservation Partnership program would go ahead (Pearce, 2020).

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