We live in the era of the selfie, and like any trend, there is a plethora of pundits and pontificators prattling purposefully about the privations of said practice. Time Tells reminds you that everyone worries about everything when it is new, but if you look closely you see it isn’t.
A quarter century ago I did this thing where I took my picture in front of heritage sites with my arms raised high in the air. Yes, we had selfies back then even if we had to get someone else to take them, or use the timer that those old-fashioned cameras all had.
When I backpacked around the world in 1986, we had a phrase: “Been There, Done That, Got the T-Shirt.” Today we got the selfie to prove we were there.
This goes way back. Richard Halliburton took his picture in front of the Taj Mahal in 1925. The Grand Tour predates photography, but the message of travel and exoticism and the appropriation or possession of cultural sites goes ALL THE WAY back. What is a Gandhara Buddha if not a kind of Alexander the Great selfie?
Take a look at that last photo – the Machu Picchu selfie. I am as guilty as everyone else of engaging in this postcard tourism. And it’s a damn shame, and I will tell you why. This is Peru, the country with more heritage sites than any other in the Western Hemisphere. And everyone goes to see this one. Why? because it’s important? No, it’s of tertiary importance at best. It’s 300 years younger than Notre Dame de Paris, was occupied for less than a century, and the craftsmanship of the four sites you see on the way to it are much more impressive.
But look at it. It’s gorgeous. It’s like a celebrity – all good looks and charm and not much substance behind. What does everyone remember about the site? Not a monument, but Huayna Picchu, that wonderful soft-serve ice cream cone of a mountain that is in the backdrop. Look at that. ANYTHING would look cool in that setting. A rusted truck would look awesome there. Anyone standing there would look super fantastic in a selfie! Top of the world, ma!
Now this is Marcahuamachuco, about three hours from Trujillo in the north of Peru. It gets a fragment of a fragment of the tourism that Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley do, but it is a thousand years older, steeped in mystery – and ALSO on top of the world – you get a 360-degree view of mountains as you wonder at these 3-story stone structures – both round and rectangular, built 1600 years ago for some ritual or seasonal purpose not yet know. During that 3-hour drive from Trujillo, itself a World Heritage site, you will pass about 4000 archaeological sites. 4000. Peru has a fascinating history going back thousands of years and covering dozens of unique cultures and EVERYONE goes to see the youngest site of the shortest-lived empire.
It’s as if tourists came to North America and only went to Las Vegas and Disney World. Oh, wait. They do that. Never mind.
But Vegas and Disney are like replacement windows – you can keep putting a new one in and imagineering it better to suit the visitor experience. Nothing there needs to be old or authentic or conserved. That also means you can dump a very large number of tourists there without worrying about the wear and tear on the attractions, because they are replacement windows, which means you just keep replacing them.
The problem with actual World Heritage sites is that they do react to the wear and tear. Angkor is being trampled by tons of tourists – probably 4 million or more this year, which is not good for its historic fabric.
So Global Heritage Fund has been working for over six years three hours beyond Angkor at Bantyeay Chhmar, which is as massive and significant and well crafted as anything at Angkor, but gets less than 2000 visitors a year. Partly there is a limited tourist infrastructure and this region was not secure in the 1990s, but the basic point is that we need to spread the tourism out, people! You don’t all have to do the same thing!
So there was an article quoting both Tony Wheeler, founder of Lonely Planet and a GHF Board Member, and myself. We talked abut Ciudad Perdida, which I wrote about at the time of our visit last year here.. We actually determined the carrying capacity of the site (and the 3-day trek to get there) and while we have grown tourism from a couple hundred to 8000 people a year, adding $26 million to the local economy, we know we can still double tourism before we will see any negative effect on the site or the environment around it.
We tend to find these “undiscovered” places at Global Heritage Fund, partly because circumstances make them available (removing landmines at Banteay Chhmar or the Plain of Jars in Laos, getting rid of narcotraficantes in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in Colombia, etc.) and partly because we see the incredible imbalance of celebrity-site tourism and want to remedy it so that more people in these countries can share the wealth of the tourist dollar.