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Uncle Unesco Meets Mr Disney

Category: , Posted:05 Nov 2011 | 06:00 am

A growing global culture club of travelers has provided a steady stream of well heeled business to exotic destinations around the globe. Be it rain or shine, Madoff or whatever current pain is being suffered in their own home towns, these self-enlightened individuals, pairs or groups are a hotelier's dream – the kind that spend money.
Yes these are no ordinary armchair lounging types, but those who have mastered the "been there and done that" banter. Most sport more stamps in their passports than they can even start to list off.
UNESCO destinations have become a magnet for these elite urban guerrillas. Often seen plying the spice or trade routes of South America, Asia (or perhaps as some of the older ones call it The Orient), or the Middle East, this movement leaves the more mundane off at the nearest bus stop.
Phuket Town (okay we know it's actually a city) has continued to be touted for possible UNESCO status. Though the news of late is that Thailand's Ministry of Culture has nominated Chiang Mai under a special city status for its creative crafts and folk art.
Never mind the island's core heritage of Sino-Portuguese architecture and age old Chinese influence, the country's north is of course very politically correct as of late. I'm not going to start ranting about that lazy Panda again like in past columns where my in box was filled with irate mails from animal activists and wizened expats no doubt shirking at some banana pancake stall, wearing Birkenstalks.
Yes, clich s are the flavor of the day and we've got plenty. UNESCO is indeed a great tourism brand aid, but go deeper into 'cultural destinations' from Hue, to Luang Prabang and Siem Reap and things start to move out of focus. Despite tasteful mini-vans from destination management companies abounding, the propensity for the globe-trotting upper crust to taste the caviar off the bread and quickly discard the dough beneath is on show for all to see.
Packs of camera wielding gangs in these places are on view, chasing after anyone bearing a resemblance to a monk. On a recent trip to Laos I had donned a yellow tee-shirt and ultimately spent an entire day, dodging and weaving mobs of polo logoed granddads.
Cases of mistaken identities also happen when groups of locals sharing some animated conversation suddenly find themselves set upon by photo hungry `snaphappies' who think it is a special religious festival.
Daily life in these destinations becomes a microcosm of photo opportunities. Click click, click click, see the culture, maybe a Wat or two, and yes throw a few coins to the locals. Then off in a cloud of dust to the next dusty monument, of course assuming it won't be too garish or routine.
Residents of UNESCO destinations have become miniature mice in the rising swell of an overcrowded local Disneyland. On show, but nothing real or sustainable other than perhaps an appearance in a finely crafted coffee table book.
I'm not knocking the ambition of travelers to seek out culture, history and art, but more so the superficial and seven days, six nights approach that is now in vogue. Collecting destinations rather than taking time to understand, connect, and really take more away than some rather nice photos of a trip abroad is a distasteful trait.
Preservation of Phuket Town is a needed and necessary priority which should take on its own life outside of domestic Thai political agendas. But UNESCO is not the end solution, as what happens once the culture junkies move on to the next big thing is far more relevant.
Accessible attractions to a wide range of travelers, and a sustainable approach need to be the ambition here.
To put it succinctly, UNESCO yes, but Disney no.

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