Markers of identity: Asia’s cultural heritage in times of COVID-19

Often overlooked, workers in the tourism sector are now facing severe social challenges owing to the closing of UNESCO heritage sites and the absence of international tourists. At the same time, the unprecedented shutdown provides much needed relief to sites which have previously experienced the downfall of mass tourism.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a drastic decline in global travel, hitting tourism-dependent economies the hardest. Heritage sites are often overlooked in this discussion although they find themselves at the epicentre of a multifaceted challenge. Families whose livelihoods depend on a vibrant tourism sector are struggling, tour guides and heritage management staff are not being paid or often made redundant rendering heritage site management more difficult. Moreover, mass confinement makes practicing cultural and religious rituals impossible for most – adding yet another layer of hardship to a community’s well-being in times of crisis. For all these reasons, addressing challenges around heritage sites is crucial.


Heritage sites in Asia: Closed until further notice

The role heritage sites play must not be underestimated. Out of the 1.121 official UNESCO World Heritage Sites around the globe, 268 are in the Asia-Pacific region – representing roughly 24 per cent of all sites (with China alone leading the list with 55 enlisted sites). According to the UN’s cultural watch dog, approximately 85 per cent of these sites are now closed until further notice. The remaining sites are operating partially and are applying restrictions for the few domestic tourists. It should also be noted that this ratio applies equally to thousands of other cultural sites in the region which do not have an official UNESCO status but are also tourist magnets. This illustrates the magnitude of the shutdown and its effects on the heritage sector.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

While international tourism has halted altogether, regions are affected to various degrees by the decline of visitors. Take the famous ancient site of Angkor Wat for instance – the site remains open, but the absence of visitors from abroad is striking. “Communities living in the vicinity of remote heritage sites in rural parts of the country are able to turn to farming, which has always been a leg to stand on in addition to community-based tourism,” says Moninita Un, PhD., Cambodian archaeologist and director of Heritage Watch Cambodia. According to him, these families might more easily cope with the effects of the pandemic since they do not solely rely on tourism.


Unemployment is soaring

However, the impact of the crisis on urban heritage sites weighs more heavily, according to Un. “Families who depend on the jobs in and around the Angkor Wat site are now facing severe difficulties, with a decrease of more than 250.000 expected foreign tourists per month – just at that one site. Over 75 per cent of the tourism sector’s companies are currently not operating”. This sector faces undeniably many challenges with hotels, bars and restaurants being entirely shut down. Workers who are dependent on mass tourism do not have as many alternatives to explore in order to compensate their loss of income. Unemployment is soaring.

Additionally, tour guides are often left without a clientele and heritage management staff is either let go or sent home temporarily without pay. This is explained by the fact that most heritage sites in the region are almost exclusively financed through the revenue generated by entry tickets and tours, and not by government subsidies. Only a few governments in the region are financially able to employ their heritage site staff during the crisis. This may have severe consequences on the sites themselves.


Thubbataha Reefs, Philippines

Guides and security personnel are ensuring protection over cultural heritage sites and preventing temples or monuments from being looted or destroyed. Similarly, marine park rangers continue patrolling natural heritage sites. In an ongoing online video series published by UNESCO, site managers around the world report on their site’s crisis response. Among the contributors to this series is Angelique Songco, site-manager of the Thubbataha Reefs in the Philippines and 2019 KfW-Bernhard-Grzimek-Award winner for her outstanding leadership in conserving this marine heritage site. She is featured thanking the rangers for their commitment in the protection of one of the biggest eco-systems in the world during this crisis. Their contribution is crucial to ensure the protection of wildlife in the coral triangle – and their job became all the more difficult during this pandemic, with all sources of revenue being cut off. Additionally, some countries report an increase in poaching and illegal wildlife trafficking.


A silver lining? Absence of mass tourism brings relief for flora and fauna

However, the global slowdown of tourism also has a silver lining: cultural heritage sites are taking advantage of empty sites to scale up their infrastructure projects and archaeological excavation for which time and staff was missing under normal circumstances. Natural heritage sites are witnessing a relief for flora and fauna, as mass tourism halts. This not only gives the opportunity for sites and site-managers to breathe and focus on preservation, protection, and restauration; it also allows for much needed time to explore new ways of guiding tourists through the sites and parks. (Non-open-air) museums or exhibition spaces especially need to seize the opportunity of empty institutions and identify one-way visitor steering in order to be able to reopen as soon as governments allow, while following health and distancing regulations for the foreseeable future.

Apart from the economic consequences impacting the people and the managerial challenges for the sites themselves, there is one dimension of the current crisis which must not be overlooked: the vast range of cancelled public holidays and festivities. Lockdowns and the suspension of domestic travel posed a major challenge to mobility. Even now, with measures being partially lifted, transport is still restricted and health regulations continue to apply. This affected families and more specifically practicing Buddhists during their most important annual holiday, Vesak, in the beginning of May. Not being able to celebrate with relatives and friends is one thing but not being able to freely access the heritage sites during these processions and celebrations is another. Protecting bricks and stones is relevant for more people than just tourists: heritage sites are the meeting point for communities to practice their religion, rituals and worship their ancestors. Intangible and tangible cultural heritage need to be thought as one, especially in times of crisis.

This pandemic shows yet again how culture is more than a “nice-to-have”. It is in fact relevant to us in many ways. Not only does the cultural sector employ millions of people, it also builds resilience and is what we have recourse to when times get tough. Our cultural identity is what brings communities together. The faster we ensure that culture is spotlit during this crisis and the faster people will be able again to partake in it, the sooner we will overcome the challenges brought by COVID-19.


Paul Fabel works as Programme Specialist World Heritage at the German Commission for UNESCO in Bonn, Germany, currently covering heritage sites' response to COVID-19. Previously, he was a Mercator Fellow on International Affairs, working in Cambodia and focusing on cultural heritage protection of both movable and immovable cultural property. He also worked as project manager at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris.

The views expressed in this blog series are not necessarily those of FES or the German Commission for UNESCO. 

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