Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Price of Survival

Today's New York Times has an interesting article about one historic city's attempt to ensure its survival by marketing itself as a tourist destination while trying to maintain its unique atmosphere.

The city is Luang Prabang, a 20,000-person community on the Mekong River in the northern part of Laos famous for its large community of Buddhist monks (there are 34 temples in town). As the modern world creeps into the Laotian mountains, the city is turning to tourism to fuel its economy:

Today, Luang Prabang displays preservation’s paradox. It has saved itself from modern development by packaging itself for tourists, but in the process has lost much of its character, authenticity and cultural significance.

Like some similar places around the world, this small 700-year-old city of fewer than 20,000 people is being transformed into a replica of itself: its dwellings into guest houses, restaurants, souvenir shops and massage parlors; its rituals into shows for tourists.

'Now we see the safari,' said Nithakhong Somsanith, an artist and embroiderer who works to preserve traditional arts. 'They come in buses. They look at the monks the same as a monkey, a buffalo. It is theater.'

The Buddhist heart of Luang Prabang — the tranquillity that attracts visitors from abroad — is being defiled, he said, adding, 'Now the monks have no space to meditate, no space for quiet.'
Luang Prabang was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, which may turn out to be a mixed blessing:
Its strict guidelines on renovation and new construction have helped preserve the narrow streets, small structures and relatively light traffic of a past era. No tall buildings mar the cityscape.

'The problem is that they took care of the hardware but not the software, the culture,' said Gilles Vautrin, a restaurant owner from France who has lived here for nearly a decade.

'The city is being gentrified,' he said. 'It will be a museum city. It will be a hotel city. Maybe the tourists will like it, but it won’t be the same Luang Prabang.'
Or, as another person starkly put it:
Tourist brochures describe Luang Prabang as a place where 'time stood still'; poverty and hardship have allowed the past to linger.

'The paradox is that Unesco gives out the Heritage Site label partly to reduce poverty, but reducing poverty is reducing heritage,' Mr. Rampon said. 'If you want to preserve heritage, you must keep poverty.'
Although the United States doesn't have cities and towns with the type of long history of Luang Prabang, the same issue will surface as the sprawl of urban areas continue to spread and tough choices will have to be made about how best to preserve - or let go - of our history.

No comments: