Battle of the Titans: Ancient Sites vs Mass Tourism

Stonehenge Summer Solstice 2009 - 333 to Stonehenge

Throughout the ages theyve survived intense battles, powerful natural disasters, adverse weather and incompetent archaeologists. Fascinating, beautiful, but surprisingly fragile, ancient sites are now under a new kind of attack mass tourism.

Gone are the days of the Victorian explorer discovering magnificent ancient sites half buried by sand or jungle. Cheap airfares together with a plethora of guide and travel books, not to mention the Internet, encourage us to follow in the footsteps of historical figures and see ancient sites for ourselves or, in some cases, take advantage of the sunny weather and cheap booze – with a bit of culture thrown in to boot.

Over the years, as visitor numbers have increased, the unofficial site guardians (in some cases nomadic tribes or the local community) have been ousted to make way for car parks, ticket booths, cafes and trinket sellers, as locals and governments alike cash in on the money tourists bring.

Not all bad when you consider that some of the money does go to maintaining and restoring the site and, with the boost to the local economy, facilities are upgraded and more people are employed.

Visitor Numbers

The latest biannual watch list compiled by the World Monuments Fund (WMF) places over 93 sites in 47 countries at risk from urban development, tourism, neglect and bad planning, while the Lonely Planet estimates 1.5 billion people will be travelling each year by 2020. With these forecast figures, well be faced with a delicate balancing act between the demands of economic growth and the need to maintain the culture of an area and preserve unique sites.

Some ancient sites have more than 1-2 million visitors per year. Because of the size and location of the sites this might appear to be not too much of a problem; that is until you look at the degree of wear and tear. Sula Rayska of Rayska Heritage, a consultancy firm specialising in heritage projects, points out: People always visit the most popular and best advertised. The lesser known ancient sites attract fewer tourists and get less wear and tear, whereas places like Stonehenge and Hadrians Wall can suffer from too many people.

Even the smaller sites have their problems. English Heritage recently announced a scheme for an emergency excavation of parts of The Nine Ladies on Stanton Moor in Derbyshire’s Peak District. Each year around 40,000 people visit the 4,000 year-old stone circle and recent soil erosion has revealed evidence of a 10th stone. Damage has also been caused by visitors digging holes for campfires and even chipping off pieces of stone as souvenirs.

Overseas sites are experiencing similar problems. Visitor numbers to Ephesus exceeded two million last year according Seluk district governor Aziz nci in an interview with an Anatolian news agency earlier this year. Three years ago there were just 1.6 million tourists.

Many tour operators are worried about this massive increase. Mike Belton, owner of Amber Travel, Turkey-based specialists in small group activity and custom travel in Turkey, comments: The latest development is the arrival of the super-cruise ship that can drop 5,000 people onto Ephesus in a couple of hours. That is in addition to the other ships also docked and unloading and the regular round-trip/resort-based visitors.

For places such as the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, which were never intended to have hundreds of visitors each day, visitor numbers are not only a logistical nightmare, but a real threat to the site.

Preservation schemes such as building walkways and viewing platforms alleviate some of the wear and tear problems, but ultimately, in some cases, the number of tourists per day and duration of visits must be limited. These procedures are being applied in places such as the Valley of the Kings and the Hypogeum in Malta where humidity levels as a result of increased visitors are destroying the site. Although visitors may get upset by such strategies, they have to be put in place for the long-term protection of the site.

But there are ways in which visitors can also help with preservation strategies. Responsible tourism can include timing visits during off-peak hours or off-season and visiting lesser known places, comments Lisa Ackerman from the WMF. The idea is to enhance the visitor experience, not restrict it. For instance, Pompeii is crowded mid-summer, but the ruins are open year-round.

Herculaneam is often far less visited, but suffered the same fate of destruction from the eruption of Vesuvius. We need to move people away from believing there is only one experience to have when you visit a country, a capital city, or famous spot, she highlights.

Damage Control

The Treasury - used as target practice in WWII. Image Credit - JK JohnsonThroughout the ages, apart from wars, ancient sites have been battered and bruised by individuals. Sites throughout Turkey, Egypt and the Middle East had crosses carved into them by the early Christians and more recently, amateur archaeologists such as Heinrich Schliemann butchered parts of Troy. Even the British army is guilty, for it used the Treasury at Petra and the Sphinx as target practice in World War II.

Weve all been trained to be respectful in museums and to refrain from touching the art or the walls; so too at historic sites. Tourism and heritage professionals need to do a good job of helping tourists understand the fragility of places, says Lisa.

Many ancient sites throughout the world now have signs requesting people to stay out of some areas and refrain from taking photographs. And bins are provided for litter. Signage works to some extent, but you still need attentive site officials and/or tour leaders to make sure the rules are adhered to. As Sula points out, Smaller sites need watching because although they attract fewer people, there are also fewer people to watch and make sure they are not vandalised. Sula also notes treasure seekers with metal detectors are causing problems at ancient sites.

The smaller tour operators are doing their bit in trying to drive the responsible tourism message home. Adventure travel specialists Tucan Travel ask that travellers respect signage, take only photographs and leave no litter or graffiti behind, even if others have done so. Do not attempt to bring home any rocks or stones or other souvenirs of the location and dont purchase such items from vendors as this can encourage the ongoing destruction of local areas of interest.

Generally speaking, because of the very nature of the tour, the type of people using the smaller tour companies probably already follow responsible tourism codes. That said, the excitement at being at a place can sometimes mar peoples judgement.

Take for instance Uluru (Ayers Rock). Compared with some ancient sites, it attracts relatively few visitors, drawing just 350,000 visitors a year. In years gone by it was traditional to climb the rock, and although the Uluru-Kata Tjuta national park service says the number of visitors choosing to climb Uluru has dropped from 74% in 1990 to about 38%, it still amounts to more than 100,000 people climbing the monolith each year. Jo George, owner of The Rock Tour, which specialises in small group outback tours in Central Australia, points out: apart from being culturally insensitive they are causing serious damage to the rock.

Ayers Rock is under threat of erosion from climbers. Image Credit - Digital Reflections.First we damage it by whacking whopping great big chains into it for the tourist and now were eroding it, says Jo. Theres a point about 40km away from the rock from which, when its wet, you can clearly see where the path is and the erosion its caused. Scary when you think it took millions of years to form, and in the space of about 60 years our actions have brought about such noticeable destruction.

Jo believes its up to the tour operators to ensure clients act responsibly. His company actively discourages clients from climbing the rock. Compared with other tour operators of a similar size, we average the smallest number of rock climbers in our groups, partly because none of our guides climb the rock.

Planning Tours and Changing Thinking

Jo also attributes the smaller numbers to the way he has planned the tour itinerary. Most operators visit the rock on the first day and then spend the next couple of days visiting Watarrka (Kings Canyon) and Kata Tjuta (The Olgas), says Jo. We visit the rock on the last day of the tour, giving our guides the chance to speak to the group about the cultural aspects of the rock as well as the erosion, and the clients have the time to actually think about their actions before they do them.

His guides are not only knowledgeable, but are trained to think ethically, morally and respectfully. We have high standards which our guides have to abide by. They will be sacked if they dont.

This attitude is very much echoed throughout the smaller tour operators, who usually rely on word of mouth and repeat business.

Mike also highlights the importance of behaving decently with all the people who work with the tour. As well as visiting sites, both popular and off the beaten-track ones, his tours often encompass the cultural aspect of Turkey thus giving a holistic experience of the country. Often the guardians and guides at the sites give as many lasting memories as seeing the ancient sites themselves, he says.

The smaller tour operators tend to visit sites at less popular times, such as early in the morning. They include the off-the-beaten-track places and, because of the nature of the tour, the guides and tour leaders interact far more with their groups and thus have an influence on the way in which people behave.

Travel Industry Initiatives

Oftentimes, tourists lack respect for local cultures. Image Credit - David Evers

What the smaller operators have been practising for years, the travel industry now appears to be promoting: responsible tourism. The Association of Independent Tour Operators (AITO) boasts of being the first tourism industry association to incorporate into its business charter a commitment to Responsible travel and green tourism. Sustainable travel guidelines for its members are based upon five key objectives:

  • To protect the environment its flora, fauna and landscapes
  • To respect local cultures traditions, religions and built heritage
  • To benefit local communities both economically and socially
  • To conserve natural resources from office to destination
  • To minimise pollution through noise, waste disposal and congestion

Other companies such as, which offers access to over 300 responsible holiday tour operators, are actively encouraging people to think about their travel and make informed decisions as to how they take their holiday and how they behave when abroad. As pioneers in this field, took the step of acknowledging and rewarding the efforts within the tourist industry by launching the Responsible Travel awards in 2004.

Nearly all major operators, travel agents and travel industry bodies have something about responsible tourism on their web sites. This is all well and good at a corporate level, and is a great marketing tool, but whats the grass roots reality? Speak to anyone in the field, and youll find its a very different story.

One leading package tour operators web site sets out its responsible tourism policy with the words we respect the natural and cultural heritage of all countries and understand that this is an important part of the tourist industry. We will encourage our customers to respect the tradition and integrity of local cultures and aim to promote the purchase of local produce, where practical.

Dress Responsibly Too

However, people on a package tour holiday are some of the worst offenders.

The clients of these big operators are still walking around town centres and ancient sites in bathing costumes and showing tattoos. Who would go to their own local supermarket in a bikini or a pair of brief bathers, or, indeed in their bra? We see it here in Turkey, and you get the same behaviour in Spain, Italy or Dominican Republic. It really upsets the local people, who are torn between their natural inclination to welcome visitors as guests and their understandable revulsion at such unsightly and inappropriate displays of flesh, says Mike.

Furthermore, in my experience as both a holiday maker and a tour leader, some of their reps have little or no cultural knowledge or understanding, have no interest in the countrys history and their sole aim is drinking cheap beer and getting a tan. With these people setting the standard, its hardly surprising if the clients follow suit.

So how do the larger companies get their responsible tourism accreditation if this is the reality? The accreditation process is apparently a lengthy, paperwork-filled nightmare and the smaller operators who are already practising responsible tourism simply havent got the time or resources to gain official recognition for it.

The stadium, Aphrodisias. Image Credit - Hector16

The Future

Up and coming sites such as Sagalassos in Turkey need to be carefully monitored and managed, as do sites which will increase in popularity because of upgrades, such as the addition of the new museum wing in Aphrodisias.

Funding is always an issue when trying to tackle all the work needed to be done. There is not only the business of monitoring and maintaining the sites, but also careful planning for the development of roads and parking for tourist vehicles which need to be in harmony with existing characteristic buildings and vistas.

New technologies can be used to improve advocacy efforts but some simple methods to increase responsible tourism awareness can be used.

Mike suggests reiterating the messages at several key points in the travel process: Clients need to be told how to behave and dress appropriately for the different environments they will be in during their holiday. This includes being told when booking, when checking in, on the plane (info video etc) and then again on the transfer bus. By doing this, the basic behaviour expected in ancient sites and dress code suggested as a courtesy to the local people is reinforced.

We live in a vast and fascinating world. Today people often visit so many more sites than they might have thought possible. We have the privilege of seeing landscapes, streetscapes, historic buildings, the remains of ancient cultures and the extraordinary, unique places that define the world in which we live today. These are not just slices of history; it is very much the opportunity to understand how cultures around the world have evolved and adapted to social, economic, and lifestyle changes.

WMF and other heritage conservation groups strive to do so much more than simply fix old buildings. We want the public to understand these places to be cherished not only because they might be old or sacred or beautiful, but because they tell the stories of exceptional people who constructed them and care for them today.

The challenges ancient sites are facing in modern times are very different to what theyve seen in the past, but thankfully, theres an increasing army of organisations, businesses and individuals to help with the fight.