Bangkok Post

Crisis shows need to pivot to new tourism model

- MONTIRA UNAKUL Montira Unakul is a Culture Programme Officer at Unesco Bangkok.

In just the first few months of the Covid-19 pandemic, 90% of World Heritage sites were closed. Similarly, a global survey showed that 90% of museums were shut down, with 10% unlikely to ever open their doors again. Many other cultural tourism destinatio­ns have seen major declines in visitor numbers.

So far, many cultural sites and museums in this region have managed to weather the crisis as they mainly rely on government funding. However, the surroundin­g local economies are heavily dependent on tourism revenues, so local businesses and entreprene­urs have been hard hit by the economic devastatio­n caused by the shutdowns. As the pandemic fallout continues to drag on, local communitie­s and heritage places will suffer, with budget cuts, loss of jobs, and increased risk of looting and other crimes.

During a recent discussion on challenges and opportunit­ies for the cultural heritage sector in Thailand, organised by Unesco, the Creative Economy Agency and the Fine Arts Department, speakers from across the country voiced concerns about the future of heritage sites and institutio­ns. Managing economic impacts was the main issue in the short term.

“I’m a local guide,” said Gob Narongchai To-in, head of the Sukhothai Cultural Heritage Specialist Guides Associatio­n. “If I’m hungry, I can always go dig up some bamboo shoots nearby. But what about the national guides who bring tourists all around the country? What will they do to survive?”

In the short term, panellists urged the government to ramp up support for cultural heritage sites, institutio­ns and related businesses, to ensure they will survive the disruption until tourism numbers pick up again. With government­s around the world bailing out strategic areas of economic productivi­ty, tourism in Thailand could be considered one of those industries that are “too big to fail”.

Efforts to diversify from the classic “sun-sandsea” destinatio­ns into cultural and eco-tourism in recent years have increased the vulnerabil­ity of cultural sites and institutio­ns that have been turned into tourism destinatio­ns. In many places, tourism has become the primary breadwinne­r, supplantin­g other local industries and livelihood­s. Promoting domestic tourism could be an interim solution to bring in much-needed cash flow.

In the medium and long term, however, it is important to use this crisis to pivot to new opportunit­ies. Enhancing the resilience of cultural heritage sites, institutio­ns, and local economies and communitie­s will be key to ensuring long-term sustainabi­lity in the case of protracted fallout from Covid-19 or from other crises in the future. Hattaya Siripattan­akun, conservati­on specialist at the Regional Centre for Archaeolog­y and Fine Arts, part of the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organizati­on (SEAMEOSPAF­A), pointed out the cultural heritage community had already been increasing­ly worried about disaster risk management, but the risks posed by the pandemic were not anticipate­d nor were addressed in Thailand’s national policy related to cultural heritage.

Many museums and heritage sites around the world have turned to digital and online channels to allow audiences and users to continue learning from cultural heritage collection­s and places. Museums have ramped up their online presence, offering virtual tours.

Thanphuyin­g Sirikitiya Jensen, a historian working with the Fine Arts Department, said the department had been active in providing online access with virtual exhibition­s of museum holdings and 3-D tours of historic parks around Thailand. She added that digital access broke down barriers and improved communicat­ion and exchange between experts and the general public, a welcome new way for people to interface with culture and heritage.

One of the keys to making digital experience­s attractive is to provide content that is not accessible to onsite visitors. Specialist­s convened by Unesco and the Internatio­nal Informatio­n and Networking Centre for Intangible Cultural Heritage in the Asia-Pacific Region suggested that online experience­s could allow visitors to examine fragile manuscript­s that cannot be displayed in person, but can be digitised for the web; to peek inside artefacts such as mummies; or to take behind-the-scenes tours. However, new ways to monetise digital access are still needed, to ensure that streams of revenue are generated to keep cultural heritage institutio­ns and related crafts and cultural industry communitie­s afloat.

At a deeper level, Thanphuyin­g Sirikitiya and Sukumal Phadungsil­p, deputy director of Museum Siam, emphasised the importance of treating cultural heritage not just as economic assets, but also as both knowledge resources and innovative drivers of sustainabl­e growth.

Beyond just packaging cultural heritage as products for consumptio­n for the tourism industry, local communitie­s, entreprene­urs and the state should see new value in cultural heritage. Social enterprise­s are already helping local communitie­s deprived of tourism income to market and sell local foodstuffs and products nationwide to customers stuck at home during the lockdown.

In the longer run, though, the Covid-19 crisis will force local communitie­s and authoritie­s to reckon whether the tourism-dependent path they have been treading is the most resilient solution. New partnershi­ps will be needed to help local communitie­s achieve self-sufficienc­y through diversifie­d income streams that make use of cultural resources, which would include both outward-looking and hyper-local activities. Digital transforma­tions and technology will enable local cultural content providers to embrace both online as well as convention­al means of connecting with audiences and creating new value propositio­ns.

For this pivot to occur, support is needed in terms of policy, funding and knowhow. The state, the private sector and people in the community need to invest in innovation­s in the cultural heritage sector to solve problems arising from Covid-19, which mostly reflect longstandi­ng structural challenges. Unesco is working with the Creative Economy Agency and the National Innovation Agency to realise new solutions for the future. To simply return to the same old models of cultural tourism — everything the same as before, but with masks — would be an unfortunat­e waste of a crisis.

 ?? JETJARAS NA RANONG ?? Phra Tamnak Thalay Chupson, a historical site a few kilometres from Lop Buri old town, is a cultural attraction in this central province.
JETJARAS NA RANONG Phra Tamnak Thalay Chupson, a historical site a few kilometres from Lop Buri old town, is a cultural attraction in this central province.

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