12.11.2018 - UNESCO Venice Office

Visitor centres in UNESCO Designated sites: challenges and potentialities

Matthias Ripp/Visitor Centre Regensburg

Representatives from 20 UNESCO Designated Sites in Europe - including World Heritage properties, Biosphere Reserves and Global Geoparks - convened in Palermo, Italy, from 30 September to 2 October 2018 to share experiences, knowledge and best practices about the positive impacts that a well-managed visitor structure can have on its site. The workshop was organized by UNESCO, through its Regional Bureau for Science and Culture in Europe, in cooperation with the City of Palermo, and hosted at Villa Zito by Fondazione Sicilia and Fondazione per l’Arte e la Cultura Lauro Chiazzese.

Participants shared experiences and best practices on the role of visitor centres in relation to 3 sub-themes: Tourism Sustainability and Visitors’ Management; Education and Interpretation of Heritage; Community Engagement and Community-Oriented Services. Priorities, advice and guidelines for the enhancement of existing visitor centres or for the establishment of new ones were identified through group work and discussions.

The workshop outcomes highlighted the core functions of a visitor centre; the unexplored or not fully tapped potentials; and, a set of recommendations for the establishment, management and enhancement of visitor centres in UNESCO designated sites. Essential points were agreed on the “essence” of a visitor centre, aware that – despite the many differences related to the specific sites and types of designations – there is a set of main functions that these structures should perform in order to fulfil their mandate.

A visitor centre’s main task is the production and dissemination of information to improve the understanding, interpretation and appreciation of the site. Such centres can play a key role in supporting a sustainable model of tourism, by influencing visitors flows and behaviours.

Although the name “Visitor Centre” might imply an exclusive focus on visitors, participants in the workshop agreed that local community engagement and the active contribution and participation in local activities as such should be considered as main drivers and goals for the successful functioning of centres.

A visitor centre can offer targeted services; it can be a meeting and reference point for the local community, which also can be an operational partner by providing volunteer work. At the same time, the structure can help visitors and communities to meet and come together, on the one hand facilitating the negotiation between their respective needs, interests and expectations and on the other promoting mutual understanding, respect and fruitful interaction.

Discussions highlighted the importance that the role of visitor centres play within the management strategies of a site, helping promote inclusive, participatory and consultative approaches (for instance, collecting concerns and formulating proposals) to improve site governance and facilitating a better integration of site management within broader territorial planning.

As to tourism, the visitor centres should be considered in a broader perspective of site destination management, based on the useful contribution they can give to the marketing and branding strategy and the overall sustainable development of the concerned territory.

To achieve these objectives, the visitor centres should be fully integrated in the site’s overall management system and related plans of action, as key actors in the achievement of site management objectives and their underlying vision. In addition, centres should orient their activities to better link the cultural – tangible and intangible - and natural values of each specific designated site to its broader territorial context, going beyond the reference to the “initial recognition”. This entails the need to recognize, interpret and present wider, associative values of the sites, from the socio-cultural, environmental and economic points of view.

Finally, yet importantly, the visitor centres can serve as valuable ambassadors of the respective UNESCO designations and of the core values and objectives of UNESCO in general - acting as both an agent and inspiring example in promoting sustainable development practices, fostering peace and respect for the world’s cultural and natural diversity.

Wishes were expressed by participants to continue the fruitful exchange of ideas that commenced with this workshop, as well as proposals of concrete follow-up actions, including the organization of similar meetings. The final workshop report is expected released online end of this year.

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