In my role as president-elect of the American Institute of Architects, I recently led our delegation to the Union of International Architects’ forum in Baku, Azerbaijan. The focus of the forum was mass tourism in historic cities. The information was very practical for our historic town of Beaufort and the expected increase in tourism for the National Reconstruction Monument as well as general tourism on Hilton Head Island and the rest of Beaufort County.

Richard Engelhardt, Professor of Architecture, University of Hong Kong, and former UNESCO Regional Advisor for Culture in Asia and the Pacific, posed three questions that the forum set out to answer:

 How can you protect the authenticity and historic integrity of the city?

There needs to be a data driven integrated approach to tourism that local governments can use to make rules and regulations to manage tourism. Engelhardt said that one of the most important steps is that the city’s heritage plan and tourism plan have to be incorporated into one cohesive master plan. Nagore Espinosa, CEO at in2destination said that a successful tourism development plan includes all the systems in a city; transportation, health care, city planning, and emergency planning.

How does tourism add to the betterment of the community without compromising the significance of place?

Espinosa emphasized that tourism is a happiness business for tourists but more importantly for the residents and that “We cannot manage – what we cannot measure.” Tourism management based on data allows local government to enact regulations and provide the necessary resources to protect both the significance of place and the residents. Engelhardt stressed that the tourism industry has an obligation to the community and needs to invest in the restoration and maintenance of the heritage sites and natural resources; this should not be on the back of the local or national government.

How do you integrate tourism infrastructure into urban planning?

Engelhardt expressed that the carrying capacity of the infra-structure has to be realistically determined and incorporated into the plan. The local lack of infrastructure integration with tourism planning is visible every Saturday on the clogged highways heading onto Hilton Head and Fripp Islands for the weekly rental turnover. By staggering rental weeks to start on Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday the traffic could be reduced by a quarter as well as alleviating the crowded grocery stores.

Bálint Kádár, Assoc. Professor Budapest University of Technology and Economics spoke on the importance of understanding how tourist and residents interact in the city. He measured urban tourism by the quantification of geo-tagged photographs from open source data gathered from Flickr over a ten year period. People were categorized in three different groups:

  1. Tourists were identified by spending 3 or 4 days in a city and never returning. Sites visited mainly by tourists were coded red.
  2. Locals were identified by taking photographs over multiple months and years in a city. Locals’ locations were tagged green. Sites visited by equally by tourists and locals were tagged white.
  3. Long term tourists were identified by taking photographs in a city over several weeks or months and then leaving for extremely long periods of time. They were also coded red.

He used the data to compare Vienna and Prague because they have similar number of tourists every year. Each city had around 30 popular sites. In Vienna, there were 15 sites mainly visited by locals and 3 mainly visited by tourists with the balance visited equally by tourists and locals. The research showed the complete opposite in Prague with 15 sites dominated by tourists and 3 by locals. In Prague, locals no longer have access to their heritage sites. The authenticity and historic integrity of the city is lost when tourists take over the heritage sites and the city itself.

This tourist takeover can be mitigated by expanding the carrying capacity by including cultural activities such as plays and concerts as well as promoting outlying areas from the typical tourist sites.

In Beaufort County’s current strategic plan there is a goal of expanding heritage tourism. As citizens let’s insist that the County develops a data driven plan that is coordinated with all the municipalities and the military to  ensure that the tourism industry is creating happiness for both the visitor but more importantly for us, the residents.