UNESCO: Beckoning tourists since 1972
In light of my recent trip to Hoi An (and upcoming one to Angkor Wat in Cambodia), I was thrilled to read this New York Times article about UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Does declaring something a UNESCO site help it or harm it, is the gist of the question raised by the article. The article explains that UNESCO sites are inundated with tourists–certainly a boon for the area’s economy but simultaneously destructive with the increased pollution and tourists’ demands. UNESCO World Heritage Sites were established in 1972 and include places like Yellowstone National Park in the USA, the Great Wall of China, Machu Picchu in Peru, and the medieval cities of Seville, Spain, and Provins, France.
Hoi An has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1999. It was never bombed so it’s traditional architecture still stands. The town features temples and old houses preserved as museums to educate tourists about Hoi An’s mercantile history. As a history lover and hopefully future art historian, I think UNESCO is great for that reason.
On the flip side, however, Hoi An is the single most touristy place I’ve ever been. (Even more than Montmartre in Paris). You know how when you go dancing in a gay bar no one grabs you ass? For the first thirty minutes, you love it, then, suddenly, you miss being hit on even by the most obnoxious of drunkards? Hoi An was the only place I’ve been to in Vietnam where no one shouted, “Hello, hello!” at me or pointed or commented about how damn white I am.
The paradox is this: In trying to preserve its authenticity, has UNESCO made Hoi An into the least authentically Vietnamese place I’ve ever visited or is it just preserving the town’s tranquil charm? What is the effect of tourism on the character of a town? And is teaching people about the history of the place they are visiting–and preserving old architecture and traditions–worth the headache tourism brings?