Pros and cons of being a World Heritage Site

By Jose Arturo Morales Tirado

San Miguel de Allende and the Sanctuary of Atotonilco were named UNESCO World Heritage Sites in July 2008. This was a matter of great pride for the people of San Miguel, because it represented a major recognition of its value around the world. Fourteen years have passed since this designation, and it is a good time to consider the advantages and disadvantages of being a Heritage City.

It is important to distinguish the UNESCO designation from some of the other designations bestowed on the city by tourism magazines like Condé Nast and Travel + Leisure. The UNESCO declarations focus specifically on the natural and cultural, tangible and intangible heritage of San Miguel de Allende and Atotonilco. They have been recognized because of their exceptional features, considered to be of outstanding universal value.

The praises bestowed on the city by the specialized tourism magazines are purely commercial. They focus on marketing, and the economic repercussions from tourism. Therefore, these two designations are entirely different in their objectives and goals. However, the fact that our city is deemed to be special by both UNESCO, and the diverse magazines, has a similar effect on tourism, whether for better or for worse. 

The UNESCO designation is based on 10 criteria, and agreed upon by the member countries of the United Nations. In the case of San Miguel de Allende, its appointment as Heritage City was based on several benchmarks, including the fact that it is a melting pot of Spanish, Criollo, and Indiginous cultures and influences. 

Atotonilco earned its place because of its exceptional New World baroque art. Some outstanding examples of this are the oil paintings by Juan Rodríguez Juárez, and the murals of Miguel Antonio Martínez de Pocasangre. The murals were done in four different techniques: canda, fresco, tempera and on silver plate. The Sanctuary in which these works are found was conceptualized in the 18th century by the priest Luis Felipe Neri de Alfaro.

These are the benefits that come from being designated a UNESCO Heritage Site:

1. A recognition of ​​its exceptional character, authenticity, uniqueness, and unrepeatability. 

2. Protection of that exceptional heritage.

3. An attraction to tourism.

4. The destination becomes positioned as an international tourist spot.

5. A greater potential to bring in investment and generate wealth in the city.

6. It creates an obligation, through international agreements and legislation, to protect and conserve the exceptional heritage.

7. There is an obligation to execute a management plan to maintain the declared site, without regard to changes in government.

8. There is access to economic funds from the World Heritage Site for preservation and restorative work.

9. The resulting prestige has the potential to improve the quality of life for residents and visitors.

10. There is motivation, and incentives to maintain the benefits of the declaration, through public policies and sustainable tourism practices.

These are some of the harmful effects:

1. An increase in population, visitors and tourists. Sometimes, during weekends and holidays, there is an overwhelming load in the city both with people and vehicles. 

2. Potential for neglect of the cultural-historical traditions, and natural environment. Often this results in more complex bureaucracies, which do not always bring better quality in demographic and social areas. 

3. For visitors, tourists, and even for the local residents what was an exceptional heritage can become quotidian, and common.

4. Loss of identity and sense of belonging by the local residents.

5. The mass arrival of visitors and tourists has the potential of causing deterioration of the heritage site, decrease of its conservation, and restoration.

6. Gentrification of the historic site and its surroundings.

7. Commercial brands influence public policies and marketing, and sometimes supersede the value of the exceptional heritage.

8. Poor restoration and maintenance of the heritage site can cause it to deteriorate, and even lose its tangible and intangible features.

9. New real estate construction can create inappropriate buildings, not in keeping with the original. 

10. New land uses can also change and damage the integrity of the heritage site.