Safeguarding cultural heritage assets, communities and belief systems: interview with Chris Flynn, Founder, President and CEO of WTACH

A community of like-minded organisations and individuals, the World Tourism Association for Culture & Heritage (WTACH) seeks to ensure that the unique attributes, history and cultural values of the world’s communities are celebrated and preserved for generations to come. Chi Lo interviewed WTACH CEO Chris Flynn. 

Safeguarding cultural heritage assets, communities and belief systems: interview with Chris Flynn, Founder, President and CEO of WTACH
WTACH CEO Chris Flynn

CHI: Hi Chris, for starters, the World Tourism Association for Culture & Heritage acronym is WTACH. Can you tell me how you pronounce it? 

CHRIS: WEE-Tack. The obvious question is: why didn’t you call it WATCH? Well, as an acronym it doesn’t quite make sense, plus the domain is already taken. The other issue is if you enter “WATCH” into a Google search you’d get Seiko or Rolex etc., not our tourism organisation!

CHI: What was the driving force and inspiration for creating WTACH, and why is it important? 

CHRIS: Over the past several years, I’ve been seeing the effects of unrestricted tourism growth and how it impacts local communities, cultures, heritage sites, and the ancestry of these particular areas. For example, the sheer volume of anticipated Millennial travellers over the years coming is quite terrifying. Just this one demographic has the potential to massively impact culture and heritage sites around the world because the consistent key aspirations of Millennial travellers is to have true authentic cultural experiences. They don’t want to be tourists; they want to be travellers. 

It’s anticipated that we will see 100 million Millennial travellers from Asia alone over the next five years, yet there is currently no organisation that has recognised this surge of visitor numbers and its potential impact on the world’s culture and heritage assets, so there was a gap to be filled to protect the reason why we visit these places. Once a culture is impacted, it’s over – it can’t go back to what it was.  

Safeguarding cultural heritage assets, communities and belief systems: interview with Chris Flynn, Founder, President and CEO of WTACH
Tourists in Estonia
Source: Shutterstock

To give an example, the Jarawa Tribe in the Andaman Sea lived in isolation for thousands of years. Even though there are signs prohibiting trespassing, visiting, and interacting with the tribe, of course over time, it’s happened. Due to development on the island, the tribe has been pushed out of much of its ancestral lands. There are illegal tours running human safaris and because there’s no currency, tourists give them cake and trinkets and things they don’t need. As a result they’ve had to build a hospital purely to deal with diabetes, conjunctivitis, measles, and various other foreign illnesses that have been brought in. 

The primary goal then for WTACH is to raise awareness of these issues at both the industry and consumer level as to the impact that we have as tourists on these unique and often sacred places and communities.  

This commercialisation of heritage and ancestry, is becoming a major problem because once you step into these territories with no checks and balances, no plan nor process for how communities will be impacted, no thought nor consideration for long-term impact and consequences of these actions, then effectively, the game is over. So, WTACH is here to raise awareness of the implications of this and the effects of overtourism. We intend to conduct studies and provide resources on the management of cultural heritage assets with effective Codes of Conduct and Ethical Standards for both destinations and the travel and tourism industry to embrace and follow.        

CHI: What do you hope to achieve in the next five years and what or who do you need to accomplish this goal? 

CHRIS: I’m interested in making sure that people and industry do the right thing. We hope to foster relationships with the broader side of corporate society, bring together institutions that hold a position within tourism but don’t necessarily recognise it, for example, ICOM (International Council of Museums), which sees itself more as an academic institution; however, a significant portion of its paying customers are tourists. WTACH will be the bridge between such organisations and the industry. We plan to hold events that will have key decision makers and influencers at the table; in fact the bidding process for the WTACH Global Summit is already under way.

Safeguarding cultural heritage assets, communities and belief systems: interview with Chris Flynn, Founder, President and CEO of WTACH
Tourists at the Louvre
Source: Image by Thomas Ulrich from Pixabay 

CHI: What role does the local community have in preserving culture and heritage, and how can it work with its visitors? 

CHRIS: Well, the local communities are the ones that are being impacted. They are the ones we are trying to support but they seem to be at the bottom of the list. They are often forgotten in the whole equation – they have very little control over tourism planning and development, which is why an organisation like WTACH is so important. The key influencers – the government, the local tourism authority, and tour operators need to fully engage with local communities to ensure the benefits of tourism receipts are passed on, that cultural heritage assets are protected and that communities and our fragile ancestry and belief systems are respected. 

CHI: Many ‘woke’ tourists are seeking more ‘authentic’ tourism experiences; many are partaking in community-based experiences. Do you see issue with that? What isauthentic and how do you deal with the commodification of culture in community tourism? 

CHRIS: Authenticity, in my opinion, is an experience that hasn’t been devalued. 

There are some wonderful examples, such as the adaptation of the traditional Maori war dance, the Hakka, which was incorporated by the All Blacks, who perform the dance before every rugby match. This simple act of incorporating the Hakka into every game has created a different level of excitement for each and every All Blacks match. Many people attend just to experience it – it gives you chills. This modern adaptation of a traditional war dance has helped outsiders understand who the Maori are: their culture, their history and ancestry. It’s helped drive responsible tourism growth and boosted the kiwi brand and tourism in New Zealand significantly. 

Safeguarding cultural heritage assets, communities and belief systems: interview with Chris Flynn, Founder, President and CEO of WTACH
New Zealand All Blacks performing the Hakka
Source: Shutterstock

The commodification of culture in tourism can be a positive thing – people who would otherwise be isolated are able to share their culture, and it builds pride in their communities. It makes them feel less isolated, so soft experiences, such as participating in a wedding show respect for culture and heritage. It creates a different more meaningful engagement for visitors  

There are ways to create authenticity of culture without destroying it. Every community in the world is different and there is no prescription for what works, and what doesn’t. It’s really about understanding what and how you want to showcase and protecting the most critical part of your ancestry. 

Authentic is authentic. The problem is that the word, “authentic” is now used too often, when it should be about protecting and respecting the rights and properties of the local people.

CHI: Last question: what is your favourite heritage site and why?

CHRIS: My favourite heritage site in the world is the Colosseum. When I was fifteen I found myself playing Irish music in a local band. Somehow, we got invited to play in L’Aquilla in Italy as part of an international folk festival. Until this point I’d never been anywhere in my life, ever! I was just a young kid, who was somehow lucky enough to travel to this amazing place – a stunningly beautiful historic town in the Apennine Region. As we headed towards the mountains, we drove through the centre of Rome, right past the Colosseum. As it was late in the day the Colosseum was illuminated orange in the glow of the setting sun. Having only ever seen it in magazines, I was so excited. That memory and that whole experience has always stuck with me.  It was the first historic site that I had seen that I recognized.  And it left an imprint on me that is just as clear today as it was back then. It was this experience that got me hooked on culture. 

Safeguarding cultural heritage assets, communities and belief systems: interview with Chris Flynn, Founder, President and CEO of WTACH
The Colosseum in Rome
Source: Image by Pascal Weimers from Pixabay

CHI: It really makes you smile, doesn’t it? Thanks so much, Chris! 

Chi Lo
Chi Lo
Chi Lo is recognised as an expert in sustainable tourism with over 10 years experience leading sustainability programmes spanning several continents. Her consultancy offers both sustainability advisory and coaching services for businesses wishing to operate more responsibly and conscientiously, as well as communications and content development services. Chi is active in the sustainable tourism community and is currently a member of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council Executive Committee and Board, and the World Tourism Association for Culture & Heritage Advisory Board.

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