Wednesday, January 22, 2014

A Questionable Benefit: Palma and World Heritage

Palma wants to become a World Heritage Site. The great and good had gathered for the annual gala at which the city doles out its annual awards and were informed that at the next meeting of the city's council a proposal would be put forward for a commission of "experts" to examine the presentation of the city's candidature to receive the UNESCO accolade. Assuming the proposal is accepted, and the opposition parties already know about it and would appear not to be ill-disposed to the idea, what would it mean? Would it mean anything? Why bother?

What are the criteria for becoming a World Heritage Site and would Palma actually qualify? Above all else, a site should supposedly have "outstanding universal value" and then it should meet at least one of ten criteria, so does Palma meet any of them? Without going through all of them, it is probably fair to say that it does. For example, under "interchange of values" (which can be reflected in, for instance, architecture, monuments or landscapes), there has been such an interchange. Or was, going back in time. How about "human creative genius"? One might make an argument for the Cathedral being representative of this.

A case could therefore be made for being a candidate, but what benefits might accrue from the award? The most obvious one is for tourism, and it is the one which is most frequently cited, but this is a benefit which is removed from what the UNESCO award was originally aimed at, which was to protect sites that were under threat from human or natural intervention. UNESCO first swung into action in the 1950s when a campaign to relocate the Abu Simbel temples in southern Egypt was successful; the temples had been threatened by being flooded by the building of the Aswan Dam. A tourism benefit may have followed as a consequence of the relocation, but it was the protection which was of uppermost importance.

The protection aspect is still critical. Mallorca's only physical World Heritage Site at present is the Tramuntana mountain range, and the awarding of its heritage status came with caveats regarding developments that could or could not take place; if they are ones which UNESCO disagree with, then the award can be taken away. But while protection is key to the whole exercise, benefits from tourism have tended to assume greater importance in the minds of some of those places which seek heritage status. It does, after all, carry some kudos. Or does it?

Mallorca may only have the one site at present, but the number of sites worldwide grows and grows. There are currently just under 1,000, which might not sound a lot when spread across the globe, but there must come a point at which the award has a diminishing return because it is no longer particularly exclusive or uncommon. In Spain as a whole there are 44 awards, not all of them physical because the Mallorcan Sibil·la chant is one of them, but out of this 44, 13 are cities in a broad sense of the word. For example, in Ibiza some 85 square kilometres were declared a World Heritage Site for biodiversity and culture in 1999. I wonder how many people know this and how many are influenced by the existence of the award, in much the same way as I wonder how many people are influenced by the whole of Menorca being a biosphere reserve (a different UNESCO award) since 1993. Menorca hasn't benefited because promotion has been poor. The same can be said for Ibiza, and the same can certainly be said for the Tramuntana. Its award was made in 2011 and since then ...?

In 2007, the consultants PriceWaterhouseCoopers presented a paper to the UK Government's Department for Culture, Media and Sport which looked at the costs and benefits of World Heritage status. The report's conclusions gave plenty of grounds for believing that the award was of dubious value. The process of bidding costs money - at least 400,000 pounds in direct terms, so it was said - and was increasing because there was that much more competition to obtain an award. This isn't a huge cost, but the report suggested that offsetting this against obvious benefits was very difficult. A key issue it raised was that to do with "causality or additionality"; in other words and putting it bluntly, would the award make any difference?

For a city such as Palma, which is already heavily geared towards tourism, it could well be concluded that World Heritage status would have negligible impact. And there is just the possibility that the award, because of the protection element, could in fact have a negative impact as the strings which come attached to World Heritage status can stifle development. In an article in October I looked at the proposal for Palma's transformation in line with the concept of the "creative city". While this would retain existing culture, it could nonetheless be an example of development that UNESCO would frown upon. What, therefore, is more important to Palma? To have the flexibility to develop in ways not dependent upon tourism or to be told by a United Nations body what it can or cannot do in return for an award which brings with it a questionable benefit?

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