Is World Heritage Status a good or bad thing?

Trip Start Jan 30, 2007
Trip End Dec 31, 2011

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Flag of Japan  , Chubu,
Saturday, September 6, 2008

Getting world heritage status can be good for preserving a historical or cultural site. But not always.
Sometimes it means crass development and commercialism.

This is a story from the NY Times about Japan's record with UNESCO listing:

A Silver Lining, or a Cloud? Heritage Status Revives Town, but at a Price

By Norimitsu Onishi

Home to a silver mine whose production peaked nearly four centuries ago and finally closed in 1923, this tiny rural town in western Japan once seemed doomed to suffer the fate of so many former boomtowns.

Perhaps one day, after the last of the diehards had moved away and the town's abandoned wooden houses had been ground to dust, the surrounding thick forests would have simply swallowed up Omori.

But after intense lobbying by Japan, the Iwami Silver Mine here, which many Japanese had never heard of, was improbably named a Unesco World Heritage site last year. Having joined the ranks of the Pyramids, the Taj Mahal, Angkor Wat, not to mention Japan's own Kyoto and Nara, Omori - population 413 - has been flooded with hundreds of thousands of tourists.

On some days, the mostly elderly locals, used to leaving their doors unlocked, have been unable to cross the town's one long narrow street, so dense are the crowds of visitors. One 90-year-old man even woke up one day and found three tourists relaxing on a sofa inside his house.

The heritage designation has been a godsend for Omori's home prefecture of Shimane, which, like most other economically depressed areas in rural Japan, has been trying to increase revenues through tourism. Not surprisingly, some regional governments are now pushing 40 of their own World Heritage contenders, ranging from Mount Fuji to sites of varying degrees of obscurity.

Still, the designation of this relatively unknown site has raised eyebrows. It is also likely to deepen the larger debate over whether the World Heritage label is being diluted through an ever-growing list of locations - now standing at 878 worldwide - and whether inclusion can do more harm than good in preserving a place unprepared for the inevitable influx of tourism.

On a recent sweltering day, Junichi Shiba, a 62-year-old salaryman from Tokyo, and his wife were among the hundreds of tourists who walked up the lone street lined with old houses and hiked to the site's main attraction: a mine shaft 158 meters long, or 518 feet. Shiba said they came even though they had never heard of the Iwami Silver Mine until its World Heritage designation and even though a friend, who had visited, told them not to bother. But a World Heritage site was a World Heritage site, after all.

"So we decided to come," Shiba said shortly after coming out of the shaft, complaining there was little to see here compared with other heritage sites he had visited in Japan and Thailand. "Our friend was right."

Like other tourists, Shiba did not see the extensive network of mine shafts and pits, smelting and refining facilities, and the remains of settlements and fortresses, since most of the area has been blanketed by forests.

In its heyday, the mine employed thousands of workers, produced up to two tons of silver a year and accounted for nearly 7 percent of the world's production. Although Japan was closed to the world back then, much of the silver is said to have been smuggled out to Asia from three nearby ports.

But by the early 1970s, decades after the last silver had been extracted, Omori had emptied out so rapidly that it was featured as a quintessential ghost town in Japanese magazines. In 1971, the silver mine drew 15,000 tourists, mostly curious locals. In the 12 months since its World Heritage designation in July 2007, 925,800 tourists came.

Some locals began thinking of ways to rescue Omori, especially Toshiro Nakamura, who founded a prostheses company called Nakamura Brace here in 1974 and eventually built it into a multimillion- dollar business.

"My father used to say that though this was a world famous silver mine, there was barely anybody left, and that it would keep declining and become a ghost town," said Nakamura, now 60, whose family went back generations here. "But then my father would wonder, even though everyone was leaving, whether one person would rise up and cherish and take care of his hometown."

Nakamura made that his life's mission, establishing his business here and continuing to live in his family's modest house. Over the years, Nakamura spent more than $9 million to refurbish about 30 old houses and establish a small museum filled with maps, ingots and other artifacts from the mine's glory days.

If Nakamura became the biggest champion of Iwami Silver Mine as a World Heritage site, his goals dovetailed with those of the prefecture, which had close ties to Japanese diplomats entrusted with making the case for Iwami at Unesco's World Heritage Committee.

But not everyone here was in favor. Some had misgivings about mass tourism's effects on Omori's quiet lifestyle and on its surviving mining heritage. Omori, after all, had almost no tourism infrastructure - just one family-run inn with eight rooms. Places like Lijiang, China, and even the historic villages of Shirakawa, in Japan, suffered from the rapid development resulting from World Heritage status. Also, others were not sure that Iwami Silver Mine was, well, of World Heritage caliber.

"Other sites like the Pyramids or China's Terracotta Warriors are old and impressive, and take away your breath at first sight," said Daikichi Matsuba, 55, owner of a company that makes handmade clothes and crafts. "The Iwami Silver Mine is a little hard to understand."

Matsuba, who was in favor of turning Omori into a small, quaint town that would attract repeat visitors, worried that the heritage designation would simply draw one-time tourists or groups. He led the opposition to the designation, and is now focusing on limiting the damage from mass tourism by lobbying to restrict the number of big fume-spewing tourist buses, among other things.

Early last year, it appeared the opponents would win. A World Heritage site candidate in the cultural category has to meet at least one of six criteria to be listed, and Japan argued that Iwami Silver Mine fulfilled three of them.

But after conducting research here, the International Council on Monuments and Sites, which issues recommendations to the World Heritage Committee, judged that Iwami met none of the criteria. In a lengthy report, the council said that Japan had not offered evidence that Iwami was an "exceptional case" that had influenced the development of mining outside Japan. It concluded that Iwami was not of "outstanding universal value."

The council recommended that the World Heritage Committee "defer" Iwami's application - a decision after which a country typically withdraws the application before gathering more evidence and resubmitting it a few years later. But Japan pressed ahead with the application, which, after strong backing from allies, particularly from Africa, was approved by the World Heritage Committee in June of last year.

If tourism has benefited the prefecture, the benefits have yet to trickle down to Omori, said small business owners here. Most tourists come aboard buses and leave after visiting the mine shaft, the locals said.

"They go quickly up to the mine shaft, take a look, then get back on their buses," said Minoru Umehara, 71, in front of whose house hordes of tourists pass by on their way to the shaft. "When I ask them what they saw, they say, 'We just saw a hole,'" he added, laughing.

Originally published by The New York Times Media Group.
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