How tourism can lend a hand in preserving intangible cultural heritage

Kevin Phun, practitioner and lecturer in sustainable tourism, explains how changing the way we travel can play a part in preserving the intangible cultural heritage of places.

The tourism industry has grown a lot over the years, especially over the last three decades. The ways people travel these days are also changing – or maturing – as people make more informed and deliberate choices when they travel, opting for immersive experiences over superficial ones. The search for culture – including in recent times, its intangible aspects – has emerged.

Intangible cultural heritage (ICH) refers to the non-tangible aspects of people’s cultures, including ideas, knowledge, music, food, way of life, as well as aspects of art and painting. This aspect of culture is important because it recognises the cultural identity of places and people, affirms the heritage value of cultures and retains the cultural identity of people.

Tourism can play a part in preserving intangible cultural heritage, an emerging tourist attraction at risk of vanishing due to factors like global warming, migration and food shortages (Pictured: An old lady making batik, the national dress of Indonesia, at her house in Yogyakarta)

There are increasing threats to people’s ICH, no thanks to global warming, migration, food shortages and other issues. This threatens to put ICH, an emerging tourist attraction, at risk of disappearing. The ways we travel perhaps need major changes. The things we do when we travel, and sometimes, the way we do the things, produce effects that can threaten the intangible aspects of people’s cultures.

How ICH can be lost or threatened
ICH is often found in places where there are poorer access to modern infrastructures, and where resource scarcity threatens local cultures’ use of materials that are considered authentic. Other times, ICH is found in places where traditional ways of living still dominate. At times, these are also places that have gradually come to experience tourism.

One possible cause for the loss of ICH is the movement of people from rural areas to the cities, which is one of the main reasons many countries started to promote their countryside as tourist attractions. In the countryside, food represents a vital example of ICH that could be threatened as people migrate to cities.

The tourism industry has a huge opportunity to ensure that culinary tourism is able to promote the economic development by building and supporting the tourism and agriculture industries, argues Gary Paul Green and Michael Dougherty in their book, Localizing Linkages for Food and Tourism: Culinary Tourism as a Community Development Strategy. Using local produce instead of imported food is a method of preserving ICH.

Promoting places with interesting and endangered types of ICH and promoting it responsibly can be another recommendation. The tourism industry can create tours where the experiences revolve around experiencing and being educated on the area’s ICH. Tourism companies need to work directly with local people and local businesses as much as possible.

To cater to large numbers of tourists every day means that the operators and producers of travel experiences have to think of ways to serve the masses, and as a result tourism products often become mainstreamed. The original product, which requires materials and ingredients that may not be available in large supplies, is no longer offered to the masses.

The number of flights that eventually add to global warming and climate change, the waste discharge from our cruise holidays can also worsen existing environmental problems. The pollution from our travels quietly but surely creates disappearance of the ICH by taking away traditional resources. And so we need to evolve in the way we think, consume and experience our holidays and travels. We need to adopt a new mindset, which could be partly driven by regulations and corporate best practices.

The tourism industry has the resources – be it financial, social, or others – to create change. And change is needed if we are to save or preserve intangible aspects of cultures. The tourism industry has the linkages, the systems, the history and the opportunities to create the mechanisms to promote change, and also what is required to overcome the obstacles.

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