Some years ago the entire town of Luang Prabang was declared a“UNESCO World Heritage site”. I’m not really sure why this is the case. There are lots of wats, and some interesting colonial architecture, but I’m not sure about it’s status as a world heritage site. Everywhere you go in the city there are “no smoking” signs that say “Smoke Free World Heritage”. I wish I had been able to take a picture of one but my camera wasn’t working.
However, I recently read an article in the Vientiane Times saying that UNESCO had sent a committee to Luang Prabang in the past month to evaluate it’s status as a “World Heritage” site, because apparently since it was granted this status about 10 years ago, tourism has grown incredibly, and the city has begun growing also at a fast pace. A lot of new developments, mostly hotels and guesthouses and other tourist infrastructre, has been built or is being planned. UNESCO basically said that all that needs to stop or they will un-declare Luang Prabang a world heritage site. They also mentioned that several wetland areas were about to be developed into hotels or something, and one of the provisions of UNESCO re-granting world heritage status was that the wetlands had to be restored and the city had to work towards conserving the historical aspects of the city.
Here is the full text of the article from the Vientiane Times (re-produced without permission!! shhh! ):
The government will crackdown on violations of UNESCO rules to ensure Luang Prabang does not lose its status as a world heritage listed city.
Past violations related to construction of new buildings had put the city’s status at risk, Standing Deputy Prime Minister Somsavat Lengsavad told the National Assembly on Friday.
The only solution was to strictly enforce UNESCO rules from now on, he said.
“If we don’t solve the problem, Luang Prabang will be out of the list of world heritage sites,” Mr Somsavat said.
Last year UNESCO requested the government report on how Luang Prabang has changed since being listed as a world heritage site in 1995. UNESCO officials also inspected the city and asked the government to respond on 15 points.
One of these relates to road construction approved by the Department of Public Works and Transport without agreement from UNESCO, when UNESCO should have made the final decision, he said.
Mr Somsavat said some people knowingly constructed new buildings which breached UNESCO rules, while others sold their houses to entrepreneurs and moved away.
One troubling sign of this development was a reducing number people giving alms to monks in the morning, he said. Not only does this indicate a move away from tradition, the decline could also negatively impact tourism, because this tradition is one of Luang Prabang’s major drawcards.
“World heritage is still new for us and our biggest challenge is making local people understand the need to preserve cultural heritage and how this impacts on development,” Mr Somsavat said.
“Some people ask why we should preserve heritage if it means we cannot develop. But I don’t think heritage preservation delays our development. On the contrary it encourages development.”
UNESCO officials have asked the government to make an updated map of the city and encourage cooperation between UNESCO and the Ministry of Public Works and Transport.
The Standing Deputy PM said coordination must be improved between relevant sectors, and local people needed to be educated about the importance of Luang Prabang’s world heritage status.
Luang Prabang’s popularity as a tourist destination has increased since the city was listed as a world heritage site in 1995.
Mr Somsavat said the influx of visitors helped local people generate more income and improve their living standards.
“Now we have two world heritage listed sites: Luang Prabang and Vat Phou Champassak in Champassak province. But we won’t propose any more sites to UNESCO until we improve the existing ones,” he said.
“We will assess what we have done and try to address challenges. We have many sites to be proposed to UNESCO, but we want to study them carefully first.”
By Somsack Pongkhao