Jlag had the pleasure to interview Ms. Christiane Dabdoub Nasser, team leader of Euromed Heritage (EH) 4 programme (2008-2012). EH 4 represents a further milestone in the process of recognizing ‘culture’ as a catalyst for mutual understanding between the people of the Mediterranean region. EH is closing and it is a good opportunity to make a first view about how the programme has contributed to boost cultural and heritage tourism in Med Countries. Also Ms. Dabdoub Nasser discusses about the impacts of the programme in spite of the complicated time for some Mediterranean countries during the Arab spring. Finally, she is asked about the possibility of a fifth EH programme.
Heritage is an important component of tourism development in Mediterranean countries. In which way the Euromed Heritage 4 EU programme has contributed to boost cultural and heritage tourism in Med Countries?
As a programme that caters to the preservation of cultural heritage within a socio-economic development perspective, tourism is an important element: on the one hand cultural heritage enriches the tourism product; on the other hand, economic returns from tourism activities are obvious, which makes heritage assets economically viable. From the perspective of cultural heritage preservation, the economic value of the physical heritage is of primary concern inasmuch as it is linked to its direct use (and abuse) for tourism purposes; EH 4’s contribution was therefore to draw attention to the fragility of heritage where tourism is concerned, and to promote community based actions that put populations at the centre of decision-making processes relative to tourism development. It raised questions about how tourism revenues are distributed, particularly where it concerns the owners of the heritage; about using part of these revenues for conservation purposes; and finally about raising the awareness about the heritage value of the site and the need for its sustainable use and conservation. This was not an easy task because there are larger economic forces at play in tourism planning, and interests transcend by far the interests of local communities.
In which way has the political situation impacted the programme? Do you see any change before and after the Arab Spring in terms of tourism planning? Do you see a renewed political commitment?
The Mediterranean region has been receiving one third of the income of international tourism with matching impacts, including on heritage. Countries of the south and east Mediterranean have recorded the highest growth rates in inbound world tourism. In the same period, domestic tourism in these countries also increased rapidly. The so-called Arab Spring has had its negative impacts on this situation, of course, and it all depends on how fast these countries pick up the pieces and restore stability. The potential that tourism carries for the region is huge in terms of economic revenue and employment opportunities, which are much needed within populations where about 60% of the population is below 30. Waiting too long for decisions is not to their advantage.
The Euromed Heritage 4is closing. Which are the lessons learnt and the recommendations for the decision makers? Which are the beliefs to mainstream?
The figures I quoted above are alarming if tourism activities are to resume and growth in the field is to follow the same accelerated pace. But tourism can play in the countries’ favour and address their employment problems if it is properly addressed. Through EH 4, we have drawn the attention of decision makers to the many issues that need to be addressed if tourism is to be a competitive force in the development of the region. Some of these have to do with the development of the industry itself: hasty and short-sighted decisions may lead to inappropriate practice and development. Security and climate change have also been identified as two important factors that will influence the development of the sector. The main issue of concern as regards heritage has to do with minimising the threats tourism represents for natural and cultural heritage resources, and enhancing the role tourism can play to conserve these same resources.
What next after Euromed Heritage 4? Do we expect Euromed Heritage 5?
The fourth phase of the EU programme has just closed after five years of activities and I must say it was a very intense period when much was accomplished: capacity building was a substantial component, and it was implemented within the larger perspective of awareness-raising and appropriation. But we have also developed methodologies, guidelines, tools, etc. for different purposes. But the most important is the human dimension: whereas EH has become a label for cultural heritage development in the region, the partners who were involved in this phase and even in the preceding phases, constitute a core group who appreciate cultural heritage and who are very aware of the stakes involved, including where tourism is concerned. So I believe that the legacy of the programme is quite strong and will last for quite some time.
I am not aware of any plans for a Euromed Heritage 5, which is really a shame because there is still so much to do, and we would all like to continue under the EH label. However, I can’t imagine the European Union giving up on such an important area of human development: cultural heritage development is at a crossroad of many avenues that are dear to the EU, such as democracy, women issues, the environment, civil society, etc.