World Heritage Day, also known as the International Day for Monuments and Sites, is observed on April 18 every year to raise awareness of the importance of preserving our heritage and culture. Several events and exhibitions were held across India in the past week to commemorate the occasion. With 40 UNESCO World Heritage Sites and 49 others on the Tentative List, India ranks sixth in the world in terms of number of UNESCO sites. In addition to this, the country has nearly 3,700 centrally protected monuments/sites under the ASI, which showcase the fascinating history, rich heritage and culture of India, attracting every year a large number of national and international visitors.
Heritage tourism has grown rapidly in India in recent years, but it has yet to realize its full economic potential. Take the case of the Taj Mahal, India’s most visited UNESCO World Heritage Site, which attracted over 6-7 million visitors a year before COVID, 15% of whom were foreign tourists. In stark contrast, the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt drew over 14 million visitors per year before COVID, the Great Wall of China had over 10 million visitors per year, and the Sydney Opera House in Australia received over 8 million visitors each year.
With international travel resuming, several countries are going above and beyond to promote heritage tourism and attract tourists of all ages to their shores. For example, last year Italy launched a video game, Italy – Land of Wonders, to showcase the country’s cultural heritage and wonders on a global platform in an interactive and fun way. Meanwhile, a 17 million euro renovation of the Giza pyramids in Egypt, including the construction of the first-ever restaurant on the plateau of the pyramids, is underway to make the site more accessible.
Over the years, the Indian government and other tourism stakeholders have worked hard to propel the growth of heritage tourism. Effective marketing campaigns have been implemented and activities ranging from sound and light shows, heritage/cultural walks and cycle tours to food events and festivals have been introduced in the various heritage destinations to attract tourists. However, there is still a lot to do, especially now that international travel is making its long-awaited return.
The first step would be to make visits to monuments and archaeological sites exciting for tourists. Thinking outside the box to create memorable and unique experiences for visitors rather than just a viewing or visiting experience is crucial. For example, in Japan’s Edo Wonderland, tourists can relive the era of Japanese samurai by dressing in the traditional attire of the time, while enjoying shows and culinary delights popular at that time. India’s tourism stakeholders – government agencies, tour operators and hotels – should collaborate to introduce such specially curated experiences at various heritage sites, which, together with tour guides trained in the art of storytelling, can help bring the India’s rich and diverse history, creating a unique tourist experience.
With most heritage sites now having contactless transaction facilities, investments in building advanced booking apps and implementing daily visitor limits, among others, are needed to proactively reduce the overcrowding in monuments and making tourism more sustainable in the future. The government’s Adopt a Heritage programme, which encourages public-private partnerships to develop and maintain heritage sites in a sustainable manner, has placed greater emphasis on the conservation, preservation and restoration of heritage sites. However, one of the main challenges is that not all heritage sites are developed equally. There are several lesser known heritage gems that are not mapped on popular tourist routes and therefore remain undiscovered and unexplored. Also, only a limited number of heritage buildings can be used as tourist attractions; other structures can be turned into hotels, libraries, museums or even schools so that they are not forgotten and can be effectively preserved for future generations.
Mandeep S Lamba
President (South Asia), New Delhi
+91 (124) 488 5552