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February 22, 2013, Friday

Promoting cultural heritage requires proactive site management

Please picture this: You made your way to one of the country's most important historical sites, quite naturally located an hour or so away from the nearest city center. As you enter you spot the adjacent official shop (on, not off, the premises), which is supposed to sell multilingual explanatory materials and other quality souvenirs. 

Some 20 minutes or so before re-boarding your tour bus, ready to spend time and money in that very outlet and expecting to be met by a friendly sales clerk, you are met by something rather disappointing instead: a sign telling you the place is closed although it had its lights on when you first arrived.

How is this possible -- site open, site shop closed? According to my frequent travels in this otherwise enterprising nation, which I truly enjoy living in, this is no isolated incident; to make matters worse, some attractions don't even have a shop and if they do, they display old, sun-bleached postcards no one really wants to buy.

Granted: There are hundreds and hundreds of perfectly kept and managed archaeological sites, monuments and other cultural heritage attractions all across the country, and the nationwide-rolled-out Museum Card (reductions or free entry for a modest annual fee) aims at attracting in particular Turkish citizens to so much more embrace their own and often that of our entire civilization's legacy. The problem is that there are apparently a number of black sheep in this regard, hence this column.

Now let us put this observation into perspective. Fairness dictates I refrain from mentioning where the aforementioned incident took place as I wanted to talk with them first, which for obvious reasons I could not. On that occasion I had felt much less sorry for myself than I did for my fellow international as well as Turkish tour group members. What impression did this perhaps leave with our guests I asked myself. Maybe “Well, if this site is run like this then what about the others?”

Flashback: When mass tourism in this country kicked in, from the early 1980s onwards Turkey was initially perceived as a perfect destination for culture buffs and the younger traveler. Both very welcome types of would-be trendsetters toured the country by means of overland coaches visiting many important historic sites along the way. Then Pamukkale, Ephesus (Efes), Mount Nimrod (Nemrut Dağı) and many more places became hot picks for all types of tourists. Come the 1990s, and Turkey established itself very well in another league -- that of being an internationally recognized center for 3S-tourism: sea, sand and sun.

Last year over 30 million foreign tourists arrived on these shores, and if Turkish and foreign figures are combined almost 29 million people visited the country's historic sites. It is fair to say that out of the 30 million foreign arrivals many would have visited a heritage site whilst being in the country for a beach holiday. Hence there is a huge market and there is increasing demand. Yet most of them would go to the key visitor attractions such as in İstanbul or Selçuk, which of course do have everything they need to provide an easy, modern visit. The issue in question is those sites of historical value that have not been brought up to the standards of the sites in the metropolises.  

Personally speaking I am somewhat undecided. On the one hand I would wish to see as many sites and monuments as possible and in particular those located away from well-known tourist trails to be better promoted both at home and abroad. On the other hand I am against turning vast parts of Turkey's splendid countryside into just another amusement park.

Cultural heritage tourism could become the standard in tourism in today's Turkey based upon how it values past architectural and other achievements and how it manages its ancient monuments, in particular those located outside of metropolises. Dare I say that the only thing missing is a sustainable management strategy kick-started by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism and implemented by those in the field who are manning and running those sites that would benefit from a logistical facelift.


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