Harmonising tourism with heritage conservation

Times of India
Rani Sarma,TNN | Feb 15, 2015, 10.13 AM IST

How often does one get to stand face to face with a world heritage monument, blown away by its beauty and majesty? At such rare moments, one is so caught up with the mystique of the site that all thoughts desert you. Yet, there I was, standing in front of the so called ‘Pharoah’s Treasury’ at Petra, Jordan, part of me lost in the atmospherics of the moment but the other, heavy with regret.

It was early in the day and heavy clouds hovered dangerously in the sky threatening our expedition. We had already walked more than two km on the uneven footpath, trying to avoid the cobbled stones gone slippery with use for more than 2000 years. Man and beast had walked on them, now to trade, now to war. Water channels hewn in the bedrock ran along the narrow winding path that led to the main township built by the Nabataeans in the third century before Christ. When the brooding and ominously dark rock formations parted in a tantalizing fissure to afford a glimpse of the architectural marvels within, all one could do was to gasp and stare.

As we walked, we stopped frequently to read the history, liberally posted at regular intervals. We needed no guides. When I read the part about the cobbled stones being 2000 years old, I could not help remember the fight we had to put up to save the 1000-year-old floor slabs of Simhachalam temple carrying the donors’ names. Needless to say they went ahead and replaced the originals with modern granite slabs!

Petra is one of the most visited tourist monuments in the world and in spite of a freak snow storm (in a desert!) it was teeming with international tourists. People generally walked or rode on ponies. There was no trace of cement concrete or any modern permanent structures inside the ancient township. What was very visible, however, was plenty of bathrooms and gun-toting security personnel. There was a site museum, a visitor’s centre and a restaurant away from the monuments. The locals, the Bedouins, were both the stakeholders and caretakers.

Also present was a big contingent of international archaeologists in their makeshift tents. One wondered how they could work there, given the harsh weather, the rudimentary facilities and the vast silence that envelops the ghost city once the tourists leave at sundown; it must be very eerie.

After an extremely tiring tour of the city, when I sat down to catch my breath, my mind slipped back to Thotlakonda and Bavikonda. We were almost at the end of our 10-day psychedelic tour of Jordan. I could not help compare the tourism initiatives of Jordan with those of our own.

Tourism in Jordan is designed on international lines in terms of signage, information, cleanliness, availability of bathrooms, ramps for disabled people, drinking water fountains, and most importantly security, in general, and security for women, in particular. The country is surrounded on all sides by much turmoil, yet, Jordan is an island of security and is swamped by tourists from all parts of the world.

Big billboards announcing the direction, distances and list of tourist attractions catch one’s eye the moment one steps out of the airport. The signage carries a signature character, hence the eye straight away picks out and distinguishes tourist signposts from a host of others. Every taxi, hotel and restaurant carries a good supply of free pamphlets, complete with city maps, list of tourist attractions and their history. The result is that, be it the small town of Biblical Madaba or the commercial centre of Aqaba on Red Sea, tourism is made possible even for the non-tourist visitor.

Another striking aspect of Jordan’s tourism is the “no compromise with the sanctity of the site” attitude. While no effort is spared to provide conveniences like drinking water, bathrooms and good walkways to afford vantage views of the spectacular Byzantine mosaics, the tourists are firmly held off at safe distances from the aging structures. At no point is the tourist’s interest placed before that of the site. Thus, the message is clear, “If you are keen to see what we have to offer, put up with the inconvenience of walking or climbing. For, what we need to pamper are our sites, not you!”

Compare this with what happens in India, particularly with fragile archaeological sites like Thotlakonda or Bavikonda. There is zero professionalism in the way we handle the sites. A strange notion, that droves of tourists must somehow be dragged to the Buddhist sites, at any cost, whether they are interested in Buddhist archaeology or not, seems to be the cardinal principle by which the tourism department functions. We will build roads bang in the middle of a very sensitive site, add anachronistic attractions that distort history, and allow tourists to run amok on the ancient structures. We flout conservation and protection laws with impunity.

That they must bow to the tourist interests of the authorities is what the professionals of the department of archaeology believe. Scientific investigation and research of our heritage does not appear to be a priority. There is neither a survey nor an effort to document sites, even when large chunks of land are parceled away for industrial/housing purposes. Any department can dig, build or alienate the land that rightfully belongs to the archaeological sites and, the department will stand by, as a mute spectator. Funds and authority are with the tourism department, which holds the myopic view that earning money, even at the cost of heritage, is the way to go. The result? The country’s heritage stands degraded.

The small country of Jordan documented as many as 30,000 archaeological sites and posted them on the interactive website, ‘MEGA’. Archaeologists from reputed universities are carefully digging and piecing together the country’s history. No wonder tourists flock to the country in spite of the troubled times. Can we even dream of such a day, when our considerable heritage will get similar attention?

(The writer is a heritage and environmental activist. She can be reached at ranisarma2010@gmail.com)

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