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UNESCO Conference in Greece Delves Into Impact of Overtourism

Greek Prime Minister MItsotakis at UNESCO Conference in Delphi
The impact of overtourism on ancient monuments dominates UNESCO Conference at Delphi. Credit: Press Office of the Greek Prime Minister / Public Domain

November 17th was the 50th anniversary of the UNESCO World Heritage Convention. Marking the event is an international, two-day conference that started at Delphi, Greece.

The forum is entitled “The Next 50—The future of World Heritage in challenging times enhancing resilience and sustainability”. Part of its main purpose is to address the impact of overtourism on ancient monuments.

That is because while climate change has an obvious, negative impact on ancient Greek cultural monuments and heritage sights, mass tourism is also to blame.

The conference

UNESCO is a part of the United Nations. Its primary focus is on promoting world peace and security through arts, sciences, culture, and education. Since World War II, the mission of the agency has been to advance peace, human rights, and sustainable development.

One way is by clearing the way for partnerships and interchanges between its 193 member and 12 associate states. UNESCO’s founding mission, which was shaped by the Second World War, is, therefore, to advance peace, sustainable development, and human rights by facilitating collaboration and dialogue among nations.

The goal of the 50th conference is to bring experts to discuss the challenges the World Heritage Committee faces in the 21st century with leading experts.

Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO, and Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the Prime Minister of Greece, opened the event on Thursday.

“Global cultural heritage is today facing a challenge that we have to consider how we will cope with. We must consider what our vision is for the next 50 years, how we will deal with the threats and how we react to those that, unfortunately, we know all too well,” Mitsotakis said.

Increasing danger to historical monuments in Greece

Noting that Greece has 18 protected World Heritage monuments, Mitsotakis said that the convention helped chart the dangers on both a local and regional level, as well as the skills needed for protecting monuments, while referring to the necessity of addressing the problems created by the climate crisis, with policies such as a dedicated ministry or a transition to renewable energy.

Another danger, according to the prime minister, was “excessive tourism” that placed too much stress on monuments, saying it was important to highlight alternative options for visitors.

He emphasized that it was important not to shy away from difficult decisions regarding the protection of monuments. In particular, since short-term gains were not as important as long-term sustainability and their protection.

Round-table discussions are at the core of the various meetings. Topics include climate change, the resilience of world heritage as concerns climate change, digitization, and sustainable tourism.

To that end, UNESCO has announced a tripartite plan of action to make the organization more accessible, more sustainable and more representative.

Mass tourism and its impact on World Heritage Sites

UNESCO has inscribed over 1,154 sites in over 167 countries as World Heritage Sites, and they aim to include even more in Africa. Furthermore, it strives to protect those properties and ensure that they can be enjoyed by the public. I

In addition, they implement vital measures to safeguard locations that are in danger as a result of, for example, conflict.

Mass tourism itself has become a complication in many countries. In the summer, it often escalates for cultural monuments, beaches, and natural environments.

UNESCO will therefore try to address the increasingly harmful ways it is damaging the very historical spots it is designed to save.

The Athena temple complex, including the Delphic Tholos.
The Athena Temple complex, including the Delphic Tholos. Credit: Tamara Semina, CC-BY-SA-3.0 / Wikipedia

Delphi, or Pytho in ancient times, is the perfect location for such an agenda. In ancient times, it was believed to be the navel of the world and, thus, a spiritual region. Ancient Greeks also believed it to be Phythia’s seat, an illustrious oracle they consulted on vital issues.

Both the topic and location are therefore of particular interest to Greece given the record number of tourists visiting the country this year. Some places, such as Athens, are coping well with the increase in tourism—others not so much.

Protecting cultural monuments

Yannis Theocharis, one of the archeologists at the Culture Ministry, talked to Agence-France-Press about the ongoing crisis caused by overtourism in Greece. In his words:

The Greek crisis exacerbated the decline of the scientific model…to the benefit of growth, which is now more of a priority than ever. Numerous monuments have been degraded.

The Acropolis
Caryatids holding up the Erechtheion in Athens, atop the Acropolis. Credit: Harrietta171, CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Despite that fact, individuals such as Lazare Eloundou Assomo, director of the World Heritage Center, has applauded Greece for its efforts in containing further damage to its heritage sites.

As he told AFP during the conference, “the reception and management of visitors pose major challenges. Greece is making a real effort to take into account what is at stake from over-tourism, with tangible results.”

The Ministry of Culture and the Permanent Delegation of Greece to UNESCO have, however, not rested on their past accolades. Instead, both still continue their efforts to stem, if not stamp out, any further destruction with which Greek monuments presently have to contend.

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