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Sunday, 31 May 2009

Guarding the Past: An Interview with Ben Thomas and Chris Doyle

Written by Ben Keene
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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.


 

Guarding the Past: An Interview with Ben Thomas and Chris Doyle, Adventure Travel Trade Association, Archaeological Institute of America, visiting archaeological sites, From Stonehenge to Samarkand, caves of Chauvet-Pont-D’Arc, Lascaux, and Altamira, protect sites, Conservation International, National Trust for Historic Preservation, the World Monuments Fund, the Global Heritage Fund, the Society for American Archaeology, Ben Keene

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.

 

Guarding the Past: An Interview with Ben Thomas and Chris Doyle, Adventure Travel Trade Association, Archaeological Institute of America, visiting archaeological sites, From Stonehenge to Samarkand, caves of Chauvet-Pont-D’Arc, Lascaux, and Altamira, protect sites, Conservation International, National Trust for Historic Preservation, the World Monuments Fund, the Global Heritage Fund, the Society for American Archaeology, Ben Keene

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).


 

inTravel: How do you rate the overall stewardship/management of archaeological sites?

Thomas: Recognizing the potential economic benefit, many more countries market themselves as tourist destinations and almost all of their marketing includes archaeological tourism. But it’s hard to generalize about stewardship or management of sites. It really depends on the country and what’s available to them. Belize, for example, has very strict laws governing archaeological heritage but lacks the resources to enforce them. While many governments have good intentions, they may not have the resources or the will to prioritize site preservation. Sites in underdeveloped areas are particularly vulnerable because of the general lack of local support in maintaining them.

 

Guarding the Past: An Interview with Ben Thomas and Chris Doyle, Adventure Travel Trade Association, Archaeological Institute of America, visiting archaeological sites, From Stonehenge to Samarkand, caves of Chauvet-Pont-D’Arc, Lascaux, and Altamira, protect sites, Conservation International, National Trust for Historic Preservation, the World Monuments Fund, the Global Heritage Fund, the Society for American Archaeology, Ben Keene

Sign at Bandelier National Monument. Photo by Ben Thomas.

 

 

inTravel: Briefly discuss the process of creating the guide. What sort of research went in to it, which key parties were consulted, and how long did it take to complete?

Thomas: Chris contacted the AIA and asked us to create guidelines for tour operators and tour guides. We liked the idea and agreed to help. I did a fair amount of research, looking at several organizations that dealt with ancient sites, as well as guidelines that were already available. We then collaborated with the ATTA, Archaeology Magazine and Conservation International and also reviewed documents created by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the World Monuments Fund, the Global Heritage Fund, the Society for American Archaeology, and a few others.

Doyle: In 2004 and 2005 I traveled to two destinations, one in Southern Peru and one in far Western China. In both cases, guides encouraged me (as an adventure travel and industry representative) to take home souvenirs. Incredulous, I declined and diplomatically conveyed that a.) it’s illegal to return with any artifacts (at least in the US), and b.) if they keep giving away treasures, there will be nothing left to see. As an avid reader of Archaeology since the early 1980s, I thought about their connection to AIA and wondered if we could collaborate on a mission to educate the entire travel industry supply chain all the way down to the would-be adventure traveler.

 

Guarding the Past: An Interview with Ben Thomas and Chris Doyle, Adventure Travel Trade Association, Archaeological Institute of America, visiting archaeological sites, From Stonehenge to Samarkand, caves of Chauvet-Pont-D’Arc, Lascaux, and Altamira, protect sites, Conservation International, National Trust for Historic Preservation, the World Monuments Fund, the Global Heritage Fund, the Society for American Archaeology, Ben Keene

Petroglyphs at San Cristobal, New Mexico. The groove is the result of a botched attempt to cut off a piece of the rock and steal the image. Photo by Ben Thomas

 

 

 

inTravel: Can your initiative be compared to other preservation efforts or industry trends? Will you publish related materials or perhaps offer training in the future?

Thomas: Yes, this can be compared to trends in other industries. As tourism increases and destinations become more accessible, people who care about natural and cultural treasures are increasingly aware of the threats posed by increased travel to these vulnerable areas. The AIA is interested in creating training modules for children, activities and programs to be presented at our archaeology fairs, forums and symposia to be held at our annual meeting, along with more site preservation content for our website.


Doyle: In addition, the ATTA will share these guidelines with companies representing the entire adventure travel supply chain in order to ensure a quality of scope and to better understand the realities of implementation. When we get feedback from operators and suppliers operating within archaeologically rich destinations we’ll begin to convey the guidelines throughout a host of channels.


inTravel: Since the guide builds in part on personal experience, would you describe a time in your own travels when you were dismayed by a monument’s condition?

Guarding the Past: An Interview with Ben Thomas and Chris Doyle, Adventure Travel Trade Association, Archaeological Institute of America, visiting archaeological sites, From Stonehenge to Samarkand, caves of Chauvet-Pont-D’Arc, Lascaux, and Altamira, protect sites, Conservation International, National Trust for Historic Preservation, the World Monuments Fund, the Global Heritage Fund, the Society for American Archaeology, Ben KeeneThomas: My personal interest in site preservation and tourism guidelines is influenced by some of the things I’ve observed in my travels. Most of the sites that I visit have been looted and the destruction done is immeasurable. I have also been surprised at other abuses I’ve seen; for instance, when I was at Petra in Jordan it became very clear from the smell and the waste that people had used the interior of certain monuments as toilets. I have heard from friends that this is also the case at Machu Picchu in Peru. At some sites there are no signs or restrictions and people touch, climb, sit and walk on monuments. Seeing people ignoring posted signs and clambering on monuments is also dismaying.

 

 

Guarding the Past: An Interview with Ben Thomas and Chris Doyle, Adventure Travel Trade Association, Archaeological Institute of America, visiting archaeological sites, From Stonehenge to Samarkand, caves of Chauvet-Pont-D’Arc, Lascaux, and Altamira, protect sites, Conservation International, National Trust for Historic Preservation, the World Monuments Fund, the Global Heritage Fund, the Society for American Archaeology, Ben Keene

The Khazneh (or “Treasury”) at Petra, Jordan. The “urn” at the top of the monument was damaged by gunshots. Local legend claimed that the urn was filled with gold. Treasure seekers would shoot at the urn in hopes of breaking it open and getting the gold. The urn is solid stone and carved out of the rock face along with the rest of the monument. Photos by Kim Berry.

 

 

 

inTravel: Do you think many people are aware of this (growing) problem? Why or why not? What do you hope the guidelines to best practices will ultimately achieve?

Thomas: There’s a general lack of understanding among visitors. Most people are not malicious and aren’t trying to destroy sites. They’re just under-informed and don’t realize or understand the vulnerability of archaeological sites. We’re nearly ready to launch the guidelines though and I hope anyone considering heritage tourism will use them.

Doyle: Part of the ATTA’s mission is to educate and professionalize the industry, and to help travelers become better ambassadors as they travel about the world. The guide is one element of that overall approach to protect and preserve people, culture, and the environment worldwide. We aim to make a more traveler-friendly version available to consumers online at www.adventure.travel as well as at www.adventuretravel.biz for industry employees. A print version will also be distributed to tour operators and guides.


inTravel: How can individuals make a difference when exploring these places? Where can more information be found (online or elsewhere) for those who want it?

Thomas: Individuals can make a difference by informing themselves about proper behavior at sites, by talking to friends, family and colleagues about these issues, and by reporting abuses. The problem is that a lot of online resources are directed at people who want to create heritage tourism destinations and not tourists themselves. Information is also spread across many sites. We hope our efforts will provide comprehensive, accessible information in one location.

 

Guarding the Past: An Interview with Ben Thomas and Chris Doyle, Adventure Travel Trade Association, Archaeological Institute of America, visiting archaeological sites, From Stonehenge to Samarkand, caves of Chauvet-Pont-D’Arc, Lascaux, and Altamira, protect sites, Conservation International, National Trust for Historic Preservation, the World Monuments Fund, the Global Heritage Fund, the Society for American Archaeology, Ben Keene

Main pyramid at Hershey Site, Belize. While most of the pyramid has deteriorated naturally there is some evidence of looting and looters trenches. Also note the trees growing on the structure. Unchecked plant growth can destroy ancient monuments. Photo by Ben Thomas

 

 

inTravel: Would you like to add anything else about archaeological tourism?

Thomas: Archaeological tourism is on the rise and we have to work hard to mitigate the possible negative effects. This can be done through proper site management by the people responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of sites and through adherence to proper practices by tour operators, tour guides, and tourists. The other part of this is that organizations like the AIA and ATTA need to raise public awareness of the fragile nature of our cultural heritage. Archaeological sites are unique and non-renewable. Destruction of sites compromises the cultural integrity of a region. I am optimistic about the future of archaeological tourism because people have started to talk to each other and realize that protecting sites is not only important on a cultural level but also on an economic level. The more we work at spreading the information the better it will be for the industry and for the future of archaeological sites.

©Ben Keene

Ben Keene has appeared on National Public Radio, Peter Greenberg Worldwide Radio as well as other nationally syndicated programs to discuss geographic literacy and his work updating a bestselling world atlas. After a brief stint as a contract archaeologist, he moved to New York and now writes for World Hum, Transitions Abroad, Nordic Reach, TravelMuse, Pology, and inTravel.

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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