Several years ago Chris Doyle, Vice President of the Adventure Travel Trade Association, contacted the Archaeological Institute of America, North America’s oldest and largest archaeological organization, with the intention of creating some basic guidelines. The impetus for this collaboration was his personal experience with guides who behaved irresponsibly while taking clients on tours. Working closely with Ben Thomas, a Mesoamerican archaeologist and the AIA’s Director of Programs, the two have since developed a manual of good practices for tour operators and the tourists who visit archaeological sites. I caught up with them to learn more about the serious threats to our collective cultural heritage and their project to protect what’s left.
Ben Thomas with his wife Kim and his son Kiran at Stonehenge (a healthy distance away from the monument)
inTravel: In his 2006 book From Stonehenge to Samarkand, Professor Brian Fagan laments the package tours that lure hordes of vacationers to ancient ruins, writing: “With so many people anxious to see them, the world's major archaeological sites are quickly becoming another commodity, to be marketed as part of a highly competitive market for the tourist dollar.” When did archaeology transform into big business for the tourism industry?
Thomas: In my opinion, interest in archaeological tourism really expanded in the mid-eighties and early nineties. Tour operators wanted to provide one-of-a-kind, extraordinary experiences to stay competitive, but this shift can be linked to an increased interest in eco-tourism too. Many eco-tour operators started to include archaeological sites in their packages and encouraged clients to experience both the natural and cultural wonders of a region. I saw this shift firsthand when I started working in Belize in the nineties. It was not well known and the people who traveled there were interested in fishing, snorkeling, or scuba diving along the reef. As these tours got more popular, operators started to package archaeological site visits with the fishing and diving trips. Soon people were hearing about Belize and its cultural wonders. Today, I would argue as many people come to see the sites as they do to fish or dive.
Doyle: In the past 10 years interest in the culture and heritage of destinations has increased significantly. According to tour operators, the development of adventure tourism with an archaeological twist was affected by growing consumer interest in education, people, culture, and history. Destinations worldwide even in the most remote locations continue to gain attention, especially new discoveries that challenge conventional written history. Rather than take a more commodity-oriented approach to tourism, the ATTA’s work with AIA and a host of other private and non-profit organizations is focused on trying to maintain the very special nature of these incredible historical resources. Along with our partner Xola Consulting, we have also integrated archaeological concerns into the Adventure Tourism Development Index—a much broader initiative to support responsible, sustainable adventure tourism.
Chris Doyle, at a UNESCO site in Vitlycke, Sweden
inTravel: Name some popular sites whose future is presently threatened. What are governments and organizations doing to help? Do laws and regulations exist?
Thomas: Personally, I think that any site open for tourism is threatened. In most cases, increased tourism has not been matched with improvements in infrastructure that counteract the effects of this traffic. In extreme cases, as at the caves of Chauvet-Pont-D’Arc, Lascaux, and Altamira, sites have been closed off to tourists altogether. Even seemingly robust sites like Stonehenge now have fences to prevent people from getting too close to the stones. Governments pass laws meant to protect sites, but the problem is the inability to effectively enforce the laws. There are international laws and regulations that govern the treatment of archaeological sites but again these laws aren’t effectively enforced. Organizations help by supporting local governments, raising public awareness of preservation issues, informing people about the threats posed by looting and the illicit trade in antiquities (like SAFE), working with local, national and international groups to safeguard sites (Blue Shield is a good example), and by creating watch lists of threatened and vulnerable sites (the AIA does this).