Should We Stop Visiting Historic Sites?

Recent damage to the Great Wall of China and concerns over the Acropolis call the costs of tourism into question
Crowd of tourists surrounding the Acropolis in Athens
A treasured historic site dating back to the 5th century BC, officials decided to place limitations on visiting hours at the Acropolis in Athens to combat the effects of overtourism.Photo: NurPhoto/Getty Images

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 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.”

Graffiti on the wall of the Pantheon in Rome. After centuries of free entry, officials introduced an entry fee for the monument this summer, priced at five euros. The ticketing strategy was announced this spring by culture minister Gennaro Sangiuliano, who explained that the fee would help maintain the most popular cultural site in Italy and called it “an objective based on common sense.”

Photo: Andrea Ronchini/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Landscape historian Thaïsa Way, the Director of Garden & Landscape Studies at Harvard’s Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, agrees that it wouldn’t be right to totally shut the sites off from all human interaction. In considering visitors’ impact on a landmarked area and how best to mitigate it, adequate funding is an essential part of the conversation. “Do these sites have the funds to [properly] staff and upkeep in a manner that’s appropriate? What’s often happening is they don’t, and so you’re not only getting overvisiting, but you’re having underfunding of the stewardship,” Way says.

She sees funding as the primary focus in terms of responsible custodianship of these sites, with potentially limiting numbers of tourists coming after. Way believes measures like those taken at the Acropolis this summer, where visitors have been capped at 20,000 per day, present an effective solution. “I don’t think it is every person’s right to go everywhere in the world,” she says. “My going there today might prevent future generations from visiting. If we overdo it now, we could lose those places and then no one gets to see them.” But she cautions that certain methods of curbing overtourism, like simply raising the entrance fees to access a site, should be avoided, given they just limit access to the site to the wealthy.

Locals protesting overtourism near the Austrian town of Hallstatt, a World Heritage Site, in August. With just over 700 inhabitants, Hallstatt receives as many 10,000 visitors a day during its high season.

Photo: Reinhard Hoermandinger/APA/AFP via Getty Images

Lottery systems are one strategy used to limit inflow of guests to high-traffic sites. Willkens also notes that staggering visitation over certain times of year and letting sites “rest,” the same way paintings are shifted out of front-and-center location at museums for allotted periods of time, can help preserve these areas for future generations. Way suggests giving priority visitation access to student groups, where staff members are in place to supervise closely and model the correct behavior of moving through an older site with its own fragile ecosystem. “School groups are often under the guidance of a teacher or mentors, and so they can learn how you behave in a place like Monticello,” she says. “There’s something to be said for catering more to groups where people are under mentorship. And I say that partly because we also have to learn how to be better behaved tourists. I think one of the [pressing] issues is vandalism and lack of care.”

Recent incidents include the case of an Irish tourist in Belgium who damaged a heritage-listed statue outside of the Brussels Stock Exchange in September—which had just reopened following a $150 million restoration—as well as a number of young visitors carving markings into the Colosseum this summer. In her studies, Willkens notes she’s seen “these crazy bursts of visitors behaving badly,” oftentimes from a younger demographic in their 20s and 30s. Though she can’t say for sure what’s encouraging these acts, she believes the incidents follow a pattern of attention-seeking behavior that appears to have been spurred by social media. “A lot of it gets captured on social media. It’s like: ‘Watch me do something that I know I shouldn’t be doing!’” Willkens says. “The person who was carving their initials in the Colosseum said, ‘I didn’t realize it was this old.’ I want to say, number one, why are you there? We just have to be better caretakers. I think we’re going to see more places say no photography because they don’t want the social media aspect. They don’t want you to do a TikTok challenge on the site. It can be a security issue.”

Outside the Brussels Stock Exchange, a tourist climbed atop the lion statue, causing $19,000 in damage to the heritage-listed structure.

Photo: desperate/Getty Images

The 17th-century Barcaccia fountain at the base of the Spanish Steps in Rome’s Piazza di Spagna was damaged in February 2015 following a soccer match.

Photo: Filippo Monteforte/Getty Images

The causes of some damage are simpler to single out and address, but some sites face imminent damage from climate erosion, like Maccu Picchu and the Egyptian Pyramids. Way poses the Harriet Tubman site on the Eastern Shore as an example of a landmarked setting that is “clearly” going to be largely submerged with rising water levels. “Some of that [damage to historic sites] is unavoidable, and we’re going to have to think about different ways to access or different ways to understand and interpret that landscape,” she says. Digital documentation, while not the exact same experience as visiting in person, may pose a partial solution. Willkens is well-versed in the space and feels it can create a more inclusive experience for those who may not be able to manage a challenging hike to a certain locale or go up the steps to a historic home. It could also be a game changer for those who can’t afford trips abroad to visit certain wonders of the world.

“If we can expand opportunities [to tour virtually], I don’t think it replaces going somewhere, but it can really open up a venue and get kids excited,” Willkens says. “If a fifth grader can put on a set of VR glasses and walk through a site, if we are telling them about the Qing Dynasty or the Roman Empire or the Mayans and they can actually walk through those sites versus looking at a picture on a screen, why not?”

Exploring a site via virtual reality may very well have the power to inspire a new level of interest in historic sites with younger generations. Perhaps such intrigue may give way to a newfound sense of responsibility in caring for the landmarked locations properly.