The proposed St Kilda Centre on the Isle of Lewis has been recognised as a “key case study” of global importance after UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee adopted a sustainable tourism strategy aimed at increasing local economic benefits from internationally-significant sites.
Meeting recently in St Petersburg, delegates from 150 countries backed a programme to co-ordinate and influence tourism developments at World Heritages sites, of which there are fewer than 1,000 world-wide.
Most have little or no tourism infrastructure around them while others suffer the threat of over-exposure to commercial tourism.
The document states: “If undertaken responsibly, tourism can be a driver for preservation and conservation of cultural and natural heritage and a vehicle for sustainable development.
“But if unplanned, or not properly managed, tourism can be socially, culturally and economically disruptive and have a devastating effect on fragile environments and local communities”.
St Kilda is one of five World Heritage sites in Scotland and one of only 29 in the world with a double designation, recognising both its outstanding natural and cultural history.
There are currently plans to create an interpretation centre at Mangurstadh in the south-west of Lewis following a competition within the Western Isles to identify the most suitable location, within sight of St Kilda which lies 60 miles offshore.
Peter Debrine, the UNESCO director responsible for the tourism strategy, said that the St Kilda project, because it is in an early stage of development and also due to its use of remote access technologies to interpret a World Heritage site, represented an ideal opportunity to work with the local community to create “an exemplar” of the sustainable tourism strategy.
He added: “This project has a lot of value beyond St Kilda and Scotland. For UNESCO, it is a key case study in sustainable tourism and remote access. The lessons learned from the development of the St Kilda Centre can be applied in many other World Heritage locations which face challenges of access and the pursuit of local economic benefits”.
Mechtild Rossler, Chief of Policy for the UNESCO World Heritage Centre, praised an international conference on Remote Access which was held in Edinburgh last November.
She said: “It was the first time we had really looked at how new technologies can help people around the world to share in the knowledge of World Heritage sites. To have a link between our sustainable tourism strategy and remote access, as represented by the St Kilda project, is really fantastic and I hope these programmes can be connected further”.
The location for the St Kilda project was identified two years ago by a working party which included VisitScotland, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, the National Gaelic Arts Agency and the National Trust for Scotland as well as UNESCO’s Scottish Commiittee. Since then, a local development group has been taking forward the plans with a target date of 2016 for opening the Centre.
Joni Buchanan, chair of Buidheann Leasachaidh Ionad Hiort (St Kilda Development Group) said: “This endorsement from UNESCO is hugely important and it offers Scotland the chance to develop something that respects St Kilda, offers great local benefits and also has world-wide significance. In order to deliver it, the local community is going to need a lot of external support and I hope that it will now be looked on as a project of national and international importance”.