Day one of the UNESCO workshop

Saturday 26 September, 2009 – Mogao, Gansu, Western China

First session of the conferenece at Mogao
First session of the conferenece at Mogao

Advancing sustainable Tourism at Cultural and Natural Heritage Sites: A Workshop

Dunhuang, China 26-29 September 2009

The workshop began with a gaggle of dignitaries from the local Gansu provincial government as well as from Beijing, plus key international guests. As the workshop is sponsored and partly organised by the Australian government, Graham Meehan, the Australian Charge d’Affaires had made his way over from Beijing.

Mr Chau from the Tourism Authority of China

Mr Chau highlighted the growth of tourism in China and at Mogao.

  • By 2015 China will be one of the world’s most important tourism destinations
  • Mogao is an important tourism asset
  • It’s important for China to build its capacity to manage responsible tourism development at cultural heritage sites
  • He noted that in the last year (during the global economic crisis) there had been a downturn in tourists at Mogao, and that it was important for them to develop their marketing capacity and knowledge.

Neville Agnew

Clearly the senior partner from the Getty Conservation Institute team, discussed its involvement in Mogao, including the development of the China Principles conservation framework in 2002 and in some detail about the Institute’s work in Cave 85, in which testing of different lighting methods is being undertaken.

Mrs Fan, the Director of the Dunhuang Academy.

Director, Madam Fan gave the first keynote address, on conservation and management at Mogao. Mogao’s position on the Silk Road was at the crossroads of various routes, so the area became an important cultural intersection between the Han Chinese and western Buddhism. The caves date from 366AD and continued being constructed and decorated for the best part of 1000 years.

  • The entire site, in which caves have been cut into the conglomerate escarpment, is 1700m long and has 735 caves and paintings covering 45,000m2 of wall paintings as well as sculptures, wooden frontages of some caves, and the library caves.
  • The ‘Northern section’ has caves that are largely undecorated and used by the monks of the area for accommodations, meditation cells and as tombs. It was listed as a World Heritage Site in 1987. The caves were opened to the public in 1979.
  • There was little or no ‘management’ of the grottoes from the sixteenth century until the Dunhuang Academy was established in 1947.
  • The regulatory framework includes the World Heritage Convention, the Cultural Relics Preservation Regulations of the People’s Republic of China, ICOMOS, the China Principles.
  • The Conservation Management Plan currently in place covers the period 2006-2025. Staffing
  • National Centre for Wall Painting Conservation – 266 employees, 187 professionals, 32 descriptions in 18 departments.

Conservation of Fabric

  • State funding including stabilisation of cliff face and pathways
  • Partnership with Getty Conservation Institute (GCI) – 17 years to sold ‘cancer’ of wall painting and develop treatment for most common forms of deterioration.

Conservation of the setting

  • Geography, ruins, desert oasis, temple forts, sand control
  • Monitoring major and micro climates, including monitoring of visitor impacts on microclimates within caves


  • Six million people have visited the caves since 1995, and the service industry, especially tourism, now makes up 50% of local GDP
  • Most of the caves are quite small
  • In 2007, there were 550,000 visitors, with most – 355,000 – coming from July-September. There are sometimes more than 5,000 visitors per day.
  • This is forecast to rise to between 640,000 and 1.6 million per year, or between 8-16,000 visitors per day
  • Overcrowding is a problem at peak times
  • The Academy’s aim is to improve presentation, using guides and other means of interpretation

Visitor Carrying Capacity Study

  1. CO2 impacts – rapid buildup, slow dispersal
  2. Relative humidity is the major factor in deterioration, as moisture reacts with salts in the rock


  1. Improve monitoring of climate and visitor numbers
  2. Criteria for selection of which caves to open have been developed
  3. Bookings and reservation system to control visitor flow
  4. Various routes through the site can be used, depending on which caves are open and visitation levels.
  5. Routes and opening times are adjusted to better cope with numbers
  6. Improve visitor facilities, including guiding / interpretation/narration


  1. Exhibition hall, including replica caves
  2. Library cave exhibition
  3. History of the Academy
  4. Access to these areas is FOC

Digital storage & Reproduction

  1. Mellon Foundation and North West University
  2. Storing images and data
  3. Reproduction, in high resolution
  4. Stitching images together to provide complete views
  5. Virtual reality representations (‘fly-throughs’)
  6. 3D imaging of sculptures

The new visitor centre will contain a Digital Representation Centre

  1. Cinemas, with HD and 3D capabilities as well as virtual reality
  2. Will increase visitor capacity by 100%
  3. A domed theatre – ‘VR Cave’
  4. Multi-media kiosks

A risk – no need to visit for the real ‘experience’ – or does it instead increase the Academy’s reach?

Question – what is the motivation for people to visit?

Greg Terrill, Deputy Secretary DEWHA

Sustainable tourism needs to accommodate

  • Values
  • Visitation
  • Community
  • The Grottos appeals
  • Sites are iconic, well-known
  • World Heritage is a strong brand

Franceso Banderin – UNESCO

Francesco (a past visitor to the Port Arthur Historic Site) spoke about the development of tourism as a resource for heritage conservation. I’ve renamed him ‘Mr Mumbles’ because I could not make out a word he said

Professor Sharon Sullivan

  • Values-based management (VBM)
  • “The planning development and management of a heritage site must conserve ALL the heritage values”
  • ‘Tourists are not the problem – lack of values-based management at the beginning of the process is the problem’
  • ‘Stepwise’ – one VBM model (The Burra Charter is another)

Augusto Villalon

This charming architect and heritage practitioner from Manilla, reckoned that World Heritage is often viewed as a brand resource, but with little thought given to dealing with impacts.

  • Example – Manilla Intra Muroos, the old walled citadel of Manilla was rebuilt by Imelda Marcos as a tourist attraction, but with no community, no life. What values have been preserved?
  • The gap between official tourism policy and sustainable tourism.
  • Spirit of place sometimes needs to be actively shared with visitors by someone who knows about the place. Example, Manilla is not an appealing city for visitors, but its charms can be effectively brought to life for them by skilled local tour guides and interpreters
UNESCO Conference Photo
UNESCO Conference Photo

We lined up for the Conference Photograph, and were also given tours of the grottoes.

We went back to the dining room for the first of what was to be a daily buffet banquet lunch at the Academy. I sat at a table with Graham Monahan and we chatted about Port Arthur and his long experiences in Shanghai and Beijing – although this was his first visit to Dunhuang.

Maria began to feel unwell during the afternoon and was taken back to the hotel, via a visit to the local hospital. Possibly just the strain of the trip catching up with her.

During the afternoon session, after a great number of presentations in which various conservation professionals referred to the ‘tourism industry’ as though it was some sort of marauding horde (and for some, quite possibly it is), I stood up and suggested that it might be worth considering heritage sites to be a part of the tourism industry, as we do at PAHSMA, and working from within it to exert a degree of control over its impacts.

We were invited to stay at the Academy for dinner, and were told that our seating was indicated on a list by the door. I was not on the list for the dinner! Without trying to cause a diplomatic incident, I caught Kas Lien’s attention. I was initially invited to sit with Li Ping and a table of Reception Department staff – none of whom spoke English. Then they invited me to move to a table of various delegates – the French chaps, Chris (American), Cambodian chap.

Somehow Maria and I did not manage to receive conference bags – in my case another of the ‘oversights’ I was to experience in the early days of this event. It seems that everyone just assumes that I am Maria’s husband and not worthy of more than ‘polite’ conversation, and that only for a moment. An interesting and salutary experience of spousedom in professional circumstances.

On the way back to the Hotel, Cas Lien, who was the assigned guide on our bus, advised that the Academy had kindly arranged for those delegates who so desired to be its guests at the local Chinese opera. Had I been travelling and not working I would have been there like a shot, but given the length of the day and also feeling a bit weary after the journey myself, I couldn’t find the energy to accept, and neither it seemed could anyone else. From our bus there were no takers.

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