The brief answer is no. Many regard access to a nation’s or a community’s heritage attractions as a “Merit good”. The belief is that people should have free, or low cost, access to their heritage as it is theirs, because enjoyment of it contributes to their education, and because there is a public interest in the maintenance of culture. In the UK the major national museums are free to enter; yet some 40% of visitors are internationals who are enjoying a freebie for which they make no contribution as a taxpayer. The British Museum was the UK’s most popular visitor attraction in 2012 – a status which it has enjoyed for the last six years. In 2012 it attracted 5.6 million visitors, 60% of them were international visitors making no contribution to its maintenance.
Government-sponsored museums ceased charging admission in 2001, as part of a government plan to widen access to the nation’s culture and heritage. Almost 18 million people visited the 13 attractions in 2010-11, compared with only 7 million in 2000-01. Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) figures suggest that eight of the top 10 most-visited attractions in the UK are free, government-sponsored national museums. The total visitor numbers to DCMS-sponsored museums for 2010-11 was 43.8m – a free cultural heritage and tourism success.
Cultural Heritage and Tourism – debating the issues
This year at WTM as part of the Responsible Tourism programme we shall be asking what is the economic contribution of tourism to maintenance of the world’s cultural heritage? How much is tourism putting back? Chris Warren of the ICRT Australia will be talking about cultural heritage can contribute to the tourist experience in rural Australia. Vanessa Ward from Durham Cathedral will describe how the cathedral’s ambition to continue to offer free entry for spiritual and cultural reasons relies on sales of goods and food and beverages to tourists.
Oliver Maurice, Director International National Trusts Organisation, will talk about the importance of tourism to the work of trusts around the world in funding the conservation of heritage. Jonathan Foyle, Chief Executive of the World Monuments Fund in Britain will talk about their sustainable tourism pledge and their work to encourage travellers to join the cause: to help threatened sites, either through donations to organisations like the World Monuments Fund or by volunteering.
Tourists damage sites just by walking over and rubbing against them, sometimes the problems are greater. In 2012 in Angkor Wat in Cambodia, for example: “high tourist season at Angkor brought some unexpected problems to ongoing conservation at Phnom Bakheng, one of the oldest temples in Angkor Archaeological Park. Hordes of tourists disregarded barriers, multilingual warning signs, and guards, climbing onto and over delicate brick shrines, a fragile stone wall, and approached active work areas to have a view of the sunset.”
Admitting tourists to sites incurs costs and entrance fees need to cover the costs of management and repair. Cultural heritage and tourism need each other. But the relationship has to be balanced.