Culture and Development

Underwater cultural heritage can play an important role in sustainable economic development.

© Harun Özdaş


In a recent study UNESCO researched how public access to underwater cultural heritage, while respecting heritage protection and preservation, can be a positive factor for development. The study concludes that the development of sustainable tourism - generating an important and lasting financial return to the local communities - can be achieved, provided that best practices in heritage access are employed and a certain basic investment is made.

Public access to underwater cultural heritage provides visitors with a tangible connection to their past, it stimulates local awareness and pride, and it holds vast potential for education and recreation. While the commercial selling of underwater cultural heritage may provide short-term economic returns, it does not go hand in hand with public access, and in the long-term it has been shown to be less profitable than sustainable heritage management strategies.

Cultural heritage visits are responsible for a large part of tourism income.


According to the World Travel & Tourism Council 9.5% of global GDP (US $7 trillion) in 2013 was generated by tourism. Importantly this percentage is even higher in many developing countries, with tourism accounting for over 40% of GDP in some Small Island States. In the coming years the tourism industry is predicted to grow by about 4% annually, thereby vastly outpacing the overall progress of the economy at large. In 2012 the number of international tourists surpassed the 1 billion mark for the first time, and today nearly 266 million people – equivalent to 1 in every 11 jobs worldwide – are employed in the tourism sector.

Recent studies have shown that 37% of this tourism has a cultural motivation, and that heritage tourists tend to stay longer, visit more places and spend more money than tourists who do no heritage activities. Moreover, for every dollar actually spent at a heritage site, about 12 dollars are spent in the community around the site on expenses such as transport, accommodation, food and souvenirs.

With many countries heavily investing in coastal and marine tourism, it is clear that underwater cultural heritage can play an important role in the development of a sustainable tourism industry. In order to take full advantage of this potential, many states are now looking at innovative new ways to make their underwater cultural heritage accessible to the public. 

These approaches include maritime heritage museumsin situ underwater access and virtual exhibits. 

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