Maintaining a World Heritage Site is hard work. Infrastructure must adapt to visitor numbers as they grow and shrink. Security becomes more vital, maintenance more difficult. Communication becomes key; it’s hard to appreciate a site if you don’t know what you’re looking at or why it matters. Here are five Unesco world heritage sites that have found ways to navigate the challenges.
MACHU PICCHU, PERU
This 15th-century Inca citadel tucked into the cloud-covered Andes is on almost every adventurer’s bucket list. Two things drive that kind of visibility: travellers who had a good experience there and spread the word, and communication by the site and country itself.
Peru strikes a healthy balance by making it easy to get to Machu Picchu (there’s a direct rail link from the nearest airport), and enforcing daily caps on the number of visitors, so that the site is not overrun.
Visitors enter in batches and the longest a tour can last is four hours. Once you leave the citadel, you cannot re-enter it without booking a fresh slot.
Strategically placed security cameras and guards keep a watchful eye. Audio tours are available but a guide is mandatory, as an added layer of security, and to help tourists learn more about it. This also ensures that the site generates employment locally.
Nikita Rana, 25, a data analyst from Delhi who visited Machu Picchu in 2018, remembers that there were no long lines. “Everything was well-organised. Travel maps were easily available in different languages, so it was quite easy to understand where to go and what to see.”
Rule-breakers, be warned. You can be expelled and can be banned for life. And there are many, many rules (no speakers, tripods, heels, umbrellas; no running in the narrow pathways; no luggage or large bags). Be sure to read up before you visit.
AL AIN OASIS, UAE
This 1,200-hectare oasis in the Rub’ al-Khali desert has the oldest functioning falaj (spring-fed irrigation system) in the world. Now sitting in the heart of Al Ain city, it has been inhabited for over 4,000 years.
People still live there, subsisting mainly on fruit and date farming. “Everything has been maintained as is,” says Shreeja Ravindranathan, 29, a freelance journalist who grew up in Al Ain and visited the oasis several times. “The date palms; the mud walls; you feel like you’ve been transported back in time.”
In 2016, the Abu Dhabi department of culture and tourism set up the West Gate Exhibition and Eco Centre to explain the workings of the falaj and the history of the place through interactive exhibits, 3D installations, videos, games and a miniature replica of the oasis.
“Vehicles aren’t allowed inside and new constructions are required to blend in with existing structures architecturally,” Ravindranathan says.
VATICAN MUSEUMS, ROME
The Vatican Museums were founded by Pope Julius II in the early 16th century. Over the years, subsequent popes added to his collection and commissioned new buildings, museums and artworks, all of which are now part of the Museums. A tour ends within Michelangelo’s masterpiece, the Sistine Chapel (above), which was completed in 1512.
In all, the museums include 54 galleries and about 70,000 exhibits. Over 6 million tourists visit each year to see the Raphael Rooms, Gallery of Tapestries, works by Bellini, Titian, Caravaggio, the famous double-helix staircase of the structure itself, and of course the Sistine Chapel.
“The vastness of the collection is overwhelming,” says Saloni Rohatgi, 34, a marketing executive who visited in 2019. “But the four designated routes within the museum break up the crowd and help you plan your tour.”
Maps, audio and video guides and guided tours make it easy to understand and navigate the exhibits. There are also ramps, elevators, baby-feeding stations and spaces to eat and rest. Special tours are organised for the deaf and visually challenged.
ABU SIMBEL TEMPLES, EGYPT
When Egypt was planning its massive Aswan Dam, it turned out that the change to water levels would threaten the rock-cut temple complex built by Pharaoh Ramesses II over 3,000 years ago. At the Egyptian and Sudanese governments’ request, Unesco embarked on a unique international rescue mission in the 1960s. A team of archaeologists from around the world got together, dismantled the two temples block by block (see image above)), along with the colossi of Ramesses II and his wife Nefertari, and reassembled them on higher ground close to the original site. The project took five years and cost $80 million dollars.
The new location was so carefully chosen that, twice a year, as it has for thousands of years, sunlight floods the sanctuary of the Great Temple, illuminating the statues of Ramesses II and the Egyptian gods beside him, when the sun is at its solstices. The temple complex remains one of the most-visited heritage sites in the world.
LASCAUX CAVES, FRANCE
The Lascaux caves in southwest France contain nearly 2,000 artworks created over 20,000 years ago, during the Upper Palaeolithic Age. The caves were discovered by four teenagers in 1940 and opened up to the public eight years later. They were an instant sensation, but when it turned out that the sweat and breath of visitors was damaging the fragile art, the caves were shut to tourists, in 1963.
In order to bring these historically significant paintings to the rest of the world without damaging the originals, France’s Ministry of Culture created facsimile caves with exact replicas not just of the original works but also the humidity and earthy smell, and variations in lighting. Lascaux II opened to the public in 1983, and contains recreations of 90% of the original works.
In 2016, a grander replica called Lascaux IV: International Centre for Cave Art was inaugurated. The glass museum has copies of all 1900 artworks found inside the original cave. It took three years, a team of over 30 artists and cutting-edge technology to recreate the cave art. Expect guided tours, digital guides and interactive exhibits, and the originals remain safely out of bounds.