Tuesday | April 21, 2015
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Geotourism expert touts importance of World Heritage honors

To cherish what remains and foster its renewal is our only hope.

That sentiment, expressed by writer Wendell Berry, sums up the original idea behind World Heritage sites, of which Hawaii has two, National Geographic Geotourism Editor Jonathan Tourtellot said Thursday at The Fairmont Orchid.

The intention of this prestigious global designation in 1973 was to encourage protection and greater awareness of the world’s greatest natural and cultural sites. The idea for such a label was first proposed by Americans Joseph Fisher and Russell Train, and the United States became the first country to sign the World Heritage Convention, Tourtellot said. Under that international agreement, the World Heritage List, which now consists of 936 protected sites in 153 countries, is maintained by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, which also solicits advice and evaluates countries’ proposals, he added.

Yet despite being “a made-in-America achievement,” the U.S. doesn’t recognize the significance of its World Heritage sites, which should be promoted and worn with pride, especially because of the tourism boost and jobs the designations generate, Tourtellot said.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Parks was designated a World Heritage Site 25 years ago. The only other Hawaii site with this special label is Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. HVNP Superintendent Cindy Orlando said the East Hawaii park pumps nearly $100 million in visitor spending into the local economy and provides more than 1,000 jobs. This week, Orlando received the results of its annual visitor survey, distributed to 400 people over eight days in August at HVNP, and reported the park got its highest ranking in visitor satisfaction in regards to facilities, recreation and overall experience in 15 years. She said the park also received an unusually high score in visitors’ understanding of the park’s significance, both ecologically and culturally.

As a keynote speaker, Tourtellot hoped to help change people’s lackadaisical and misinformed views on the World Heritage inscriptions and process Thursday during the World Heritage Anniversary Roundtable — an event held in commemoration of the silver anniversary of HVNP’s status and the 40th anniversary of the World Heritage Convention. The event was intended to explain the importance of the designation to our island and state, what it means to those in the visitor industry and how they can leverage it in their outreach efforts.

In 2010, Brand USA was established by the federal Travel Promotion Act to spearhead the nation’s first-ever global marketing effort to promote the U.S. as a premier travel destination. Since the act passed, tourism has increased roughly 4.2 percent in the U.S. For the past three years, the U.S. has held the No. 2 position in world tourism, with France topping the list and China being No. 3, Orlando said.

Just 21 World Heritage sites exist in the United States while France has 38 sites and China has 43 sites. Is the U.S. losing out? Yes, according to Tourtellot.

Compounding the problem are “pure nonsense” myths about World Heritage, including that it was started by the UN and foreigners, as well as the sites are under UNESCO rule, Tourtellot said. Another challenge is a provision, enacted by Congress, that states no nonfederal property may be nominated for inclusion on the World Heritage List unless every single property owner agrees to it in writing, he added.

Once World Heritage status is attained — a long process — places need to not just promote the site, but also protect the product, which includes the gateway destination. For HVNP, the entire island is the gateway destination, making stewardship islandwide important. Also key is geotourism, tourism that sustains or enhances the geographical character of a place, its environment, culture, aesthetics, heritage and residents’ well-being, Tourtellot said.