Why preserving urban heritage makes economic sense

Published on Wednesday, 05 July 2017

Published by Aldrin B. Plaza on Wednesday, 05 July 2017

Ho Chi Minh City is a major draw for tourists in Viet Nam.
Ho Chi Minh City is a major draw for tourists in Viet Nam.

Over a year ago I wrote a blog about the trade-offs between preserving a city’s built heritage and economic development. I touched on the premise that this should not be an either-or choice for city managers; rather, the preservation of urban heritage is an opportunity to open up myriad benefits for citizens.

The reality, though, is that preserving built heritage is still a hard-sell for both decision-makers and citizens mainly because it requires specialized expertise to develop and manage (i.e. urban archaeologists), is investment intensive, and it takes time for benefits to be realized.

More education helps, and a heritage program should be backed up by a strong information and communication strategy. This would also involve marketing to external channels like the Ministry of Tourism and travel websites, for the program to create significant momentum.

But sadly, sometimes we need to learn the hard way.

For instance, in October 2013 a 7.2 magnitude earthquake destroyed at least ten iconic churches on the Philippine island of Bohol. Initial damage was estimated at about Php750 million ($15.1 million).

  Preserving built heritage is still a hard-sell for many Asian cities

The figure however rose to Php2 billion when the cost of restoring the churches—dating from the Spanish colonial era—was calculated.

Not only were the restoration costs enormous; there were also lost social and economic opportunities, including income from tourism and selling goods at church-hosted events.

All of this could have been mitigated if measures to preserve the churches had been in place. The difficult thing is there’s no fixed cost across-the-board for the maintenance of structures such as churches, where the types or materials and technology vary.

Baclayon Church in Bohol, for example, is made of crushed coral. So, not only will those administering its reconstruction have to hurdle the cost of the materials but also environmental policies that protect marine life.

Preserving urban heritage help local industries develop

The 2013 earthquake demonstrates that urban heritage preservation should include measures to build resilience against natural disasters. But is it worth it for cities to undertake this? Let’s analyze some actual case studies.

In Viet Nam, the major tourism attractions are historical and cultural sites in cities like Ha Noi, Ho Chi Minh City, Hue, Sa Pa, and Hoi An. To determine income opportunities from this urban heritage, we can try to quantify it based on the number of tourist visits.

Official statistics show 10 million international tourists visited the country in 2016. If we estimate each tourist spends about $100 a day for 3 days, this would mean possible annual generated income of $3 billion. And this is just a straightforward quantified assumption.

Another interesting case study is in the Philippines. In the city of Vigan, a UNESCO World Heritage site in Ilocos Sur province, official statements of financial performance for first half of 2016 show that income from services and business, and grants and donations overtook tax revenues in the first half of the year with the latter at 19.8% and the former 22.8% of the city’s total income.

  Tourism is major reason to protect built urban heritage

The quantified benefits illustrated by these two case studies suggest that preserving urban heritage can support the development of local industries, and provide income opportunities for communities and the city government.

The types of businesses most likely to enjoy these benefits are usually a mix of tourism services providers like hotels and restaurants, as well as banks and shops.

In addition, preserving urban heritage is a great way to showcase a city’s unique identity through goods like food, textiles, or art produced locally.

These small industries benefit from international grants for heritage preservation, but even without such assistance can be a sustainable source of income for citizens.

These are just some of benefits of preserving urban heritage. Integrated urban development plans should consider not only commercial and infrastructure investments but also the conservation of a city’s cultural and historical treasures – for the economic benefit of its citizens and enjoyment of visitors.