June 16, 2024

Voyage into Spectacular Travels

Unveiling Authentic Journeys

Should We Stop Visiting Historic Sites?

3 min read

Amid multiple Colosseum vandals this summer, visitor limitations introduced at the Acropolis due to overtourism, and a hole drilled straight through the Great Wall of China—causing “irreversible damage”—the question begs to be asked: are we putting our most treasured historic sites in danger with our very presence? Bad actors, damage incurred by constant human traffic through a space, and the effects of climate change on sites are all very different components at play, but in considering how to best preserve earth’s ancient architectural marvels, all must be addressed.

It’s an issue Danielle Willkens, an architectural historian and architectural designer, has dedicated no small amount of time to. The Georgia Institute of Technology associate professor studies the impact of tourism on heritage sites, which includes both the effects of damage caused over time as well as instances of vandalization brought about by irresponsible guests. Through the Society of Architectural Historians, Willkens secured a traveling fellowship in 2016 to research sites inundated with tourism, which took her around the globe, from Denmark’s Faroe Islands to Cuba. She’s currently working in the cradle of civilization: Petra, Jordan.

“People come through and they’ll just rub the side of a sandstone carving,” Willkens says. “It might feel innocuous for an individual to do that, but you have to consider that millions of people go through there and do the same thing.” Being touched by scores of people over centuries can result in “catastrophic effects” to historic sites and artifacts due to the oils in our hands, Willkens notes.

Petra Jordan historic site with horses and tourists

Petra is Jordan’s most visited attraction. Though many locals rely on the tourism economy, the industry is precarious and the throngs of visitors can have negative impacts on the ancient sandstone tombs.

Photo: Maciej Moskwa/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The lack of awareness around the best stewardship of these landmarks extends to those tasked with preserving them as well. Willkens notes that past restoration efforts at historic sites have, albeit unintentionally, done more harm than good. “Power washing in the ’80s, which people thought was a great idea, we’ve now realized has damaged tons of historic masonry because it’s damaged the face of the brick,” she explains. “Or we’ve put in Portland cement where we should have used mortar for brick, and so that’s actually crumbling these historic façades. What was deemed as preservation and conservation ended up being really detrimental.”

Still, Willkens doesn’t see concerns over damage as sufficient justification for halting all tourism to such sites. She mentions a sentiment that she sees surface often in debates about landmarked areas: “Do these sites belong to the living or the dead?” As someone who has spent a great deal of time in the field, Willkens knows firsthand that there’s something magical in learning about the rich history of a place while you’re standing inside of it, whether that’s smelling the pine trees at Hadrian’s Villa or simply feeling a temperature difference walking through different corridors of a historic home like Monticello. “I don’t think we should mothball places,” she says. “Making everything into a museum, putting it all behind glass, is not the solution.”

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