cultural heritage, preservation

Chris Flynn on the preservation of cultural heritage

19th May 2021

Chris Flynn, CEO of WTACH, shares his thoughts on the preservation of cultural heritage and how sustainable tourism practices can contribute to it

In this episode, we are delighted to speak to Chris Flynn, CEO of WTACH, the World Tourism Association for Culture & Heritage, and global authority on the protection and preservation of cultural heritage assets through the development of responsible and sustainable tourism practices and policies. Creative Culture is a proud member of WTACH, and it was a pleasure talking to Chris about how we can collectively start making a difference to preserve local cultural heritage worldwide.


Creative Culture: Welcome to the Creative Culture Podcast interview series. And today we’re joined by Chris Flynn, CEO of WTACH. And that’s the world tourism association for culture and heritage. This is a global authority of the preservation of cultural heritage assets through the development and responsible and sustainable tourism practices and policies. Creative Culture is a proud member of WTACH and we’re delighted to speak to Chris today about how we can collectively start making a difference to preserve local cultural heritage worldwide. And so Chris, perhaps you can tell us a little bit about yourself and why you founded WTACH and what really you’re all about.

Chris: Well, first of all, Paul, I’d just like to say thank you for inviting me to take part in the series. And it’s wonderful that we actually have now a really constructive relationship with Creative Culture. So it’s great to actually be with you today. In terms of me, you probably although I’m in Sydney, I’ve been here for 20 years or more. I’m actually from Manchester in the UK. I grew up in a working class suburb on the south side of Manchester. And of course, way back then, nobody travelled anywhere. You were very fortunate indeed if you could actually go overseas. So it was something that was never considered. So imagine my surprise when after one summer I went back to school and I chatted to a couple of friends of mine and asked them what they’ve been doing during the summer break. And they said, oh well, we went to Switzerland, Austria and Belgium. I nearly fell off my chair. I couldn’t believe it. I said, well, how do you do that? They said, well, we joined an Irish pipe band as drummers and we play at cultural and folk festivals around Europe. So fast forward twelve months and I’m sat on this Alitalia plane with my drum in the hold en route to play at my first international cultural festival in a beautiful place called L’Aquila in the Apennine Mountains of Italy.

And of course, I was a school kid, I was an excited 15 year old kid. I’d never been anywhere. And it was quite incredible. When we arrived, we got put on this bus and I’ve got this memory which is vivid in my mind of us driving around the Coliseum. Now the sun was going down, so it’s late afternoon, early evening, and in my mind’s eye I can still see the Coliseum sort of like a beacon of gold as it picked up the reflection of the sunlight. And then we headed off into the night. And the following day, the following morning we woke up in the beautiful Apennine Mountains. And my first performance the following evening was on a 2000 year old Roman amphitheater stage. And it blew my mind and it changed my life instantly. I was going to do a fine arts degree in Leeds, but when I stood on that stage and I had 2000 people all sat on stone steps with pillars in front of me as this kid. I made the decision right there and then that I was going to travel for the rest of my life. And that is exactly what I’ve done.

So I suppose coming back to the other part of your question, why did I find WTACH? Culture. Because of that experience has always been ingrained in who I am and what I do. And certainly with the work that I’ve done in the past, it’s very significant. So prior to founding WTACH, I was director for another global organization. As the Pacific director I managed 22 countries in the Pacific region, all the way from Micronesia through the Melanesia Polynesia and all the way through to New Zealand and Australia. So it was a massive territory, about a third of the planet. And I did that for about 15 years because it was fascinating. But over that time I could basically see the erosion of some of the cultural assets, tangible and intangible in the region. I could see and experience the exploitation that was being conducted by some unscrupulous operators around the place who would utilize, or use, as a better phrase, maybe some of the local tribes in a particular country and give absolutely nothing back. So I’d always had an issue with this and part of my role, although I was responsible for the Pacific region, it was a global role.

So I would speak at conferences around the world, usually about two a month. And the two areas that I focused on were future trends in travel and tourism and cultural heritage. And there wasn’t that many people out there talking about cultural heritage, which is quite surprising considering that it’s one of the key, if not the key thing that drives people to visit any particular destination. It used to be price prior to COVID-19, but I’m pleased to say that the whole environment of cultural heritage has now been elevated to a very sort of prominent part of travel and tourism. Anyway, getting back to the story, because I got a name for myself or a reputation on speaking about cultural heritage, I was invited by the Chinese government to go and present to some senior executives of the Chinese Tourism Authority. And I was really quite surprised at some of the things that were going on over there. And what got me was the Chinese never do anything for nothing. So I was curious as to why they wanted to focus particularly on cultural heritage. I won’t get into the politics of it, but when I came back from it wasn’t just one trip, it was two trips.

When I came back, I began to research what they were focused on. And what fell out immediately were the trends of the millennial travellers. Now, in travel and tourism. We do make a lot of assumptions, and I think the assumption had always been that when it comes to something a bit more immersive, like cultural and heritage, that it was a particular demographic, as we call them, the gray nomads. Those who a little bit older, maybe retired, a bit more money in the bank, and they would have to spend more time sort of exploring a place or a people. But what fell out of my research was millennials. And this was both from a Western mindset and an Eastern mindset. So, as an example, from a Western mindset, on all the surveys that I looked at around the world, the average was about 82%. The number one thing that people wanted to do in that demographic was have a true, authentic cultural experience. When I looked at the Asian mindset, the Eastern mindset, it was about 73, 74 on average. So it was on both the number one. Now, the problem was, we were anticipating as an industry, about 100 million of them traveling over a five year period from 2018.

And this is the period that I’m talking about. And there were no checks and balances in place, there were no safeguards. I don’t think it would be on anyone’s radar at all. It certainly wasn’t on mine until I began to do this research. So I raised the issue with some of the global authorities, including the organization I worked with at the time, and I couldn’t get any traction at all, which really surprised me. It was a little bit too hard. Shall we say. So after getting a negative response or no response in most times from these global authorities. Who shall remain nameless tidy. The only thing to do. If I was going to do anything positive. Was to resign and to set up an organization that was dedicated to the protection of culture and heritage. Because you can imagine the damage that can be done when you’ve got 100 million people and the number one thing they want to do is go and visit authentic experiences in lands and with people who don’t have the experience. The training or the understanding of what this could potentially do to their society. So late June of 2018.

Fairly recently. I formed WATCH. I formed the World Tourism Association. The culture and heritage and again, what really surprised me about this, Paul, was there was no organization on the planet that was doing this. I like most people in tourism, and I’ve been in tourism for 40 years. Most people are just assumed that WTACH or an organization like WTACH existed, but it didn’t. So I worked with the University of Queensland and two iconic professors there to start building codes of conduct and ethical standards for the tourism industry in a language and in a manner that would enable the industry to grasp it and be embrace it. Because the vast majority of policy, if you will, that is out there, is written in academic language. It makes no sense to the majority of operators around the world. So we had to basically, as I say, change the way the language was positioned and the manner in which we distributed it. And that was the first thing that we actually did.

Creative Culture: It’s really interesting, Chris, actually from right from your beginnings in Manchester, and obviously there was an outpouring of drummers traveling around as an excuse to get out of the northwest of England.

Chris: It’s still going for, believe it or not, I got my latest invite because I’m still in touch with all the boys and they still play and they’re playing at the New York St Patrick’s Day Parade next year. So they’ve asked me if I go along and play. So I’ve agreed. So it’s still part of my life.

Creative Culture: That’s great. I mean, you talked about cultural heritage, but one thing that struck me, of course, and you see it everywhere, and you just talk about those 100 million. The way that mass tourism has expanded exponentially in recent decades, especially, I would say, in the last decade, and often bringing with it that there’s devastating consequences that not only impact our environment, but local communities and local cultures. So what would you say is the key thing that we tech is trying to change in that? And how do you make travel stakeholders and local governments more aware and actually do something about it?

Chris: Well, I think the first thing to do with that question is the fact that probably since its inception, travel and tourism has been measured on volume. It’s been measured on how many visitors you could welcome in a destination or an institution, an art gallery or whatever. It’s never been lofted on the quality of the visitor. And even on the last true measurements, pre covid 19 from the United Nations World Tourism Organization. They celebrated that in 2019, the world produced one 5 billion international visitors around the world, international tourists. Now, when we talk about millions and billions, they sound pretty much the same. But what I do when I’m speaking to people at conferences and various different seminars, I like to do a little bit of mental arithmetic to give people an understanding of the issue that we’re talking about here. So if I was to take a million seconds away from today, I’d end up with about twelve days. If I take a billion seconds away from today, I end up with 33 years. So when we start talking about one 5 billion tourists, you can start to see the issue and the problem. The other thing is, as I said earlier about my experience in the Pacific, we tend to take culture and heritage for granted because something has been there sort of immemorial it’s been there forever.

We seem to assume or take it for granted that we can just use it for profit. So it’s become profit over people, as opposed to looking at a destination and trying to invest back. Now, what we’ve seen in recent times, and we’ll look at the obvious ones Venice and Barcelona, Croatia, et cetera. What happens when it comes to community is the majority of people are for tourism, but people don’t like tourism being done to them. They like tourism to be done in concert with them. They want to be at the table and make those decisions with the people who matter. And in the past, this hasn’t happened. So, as I say, the more people you can pack into a place, the better. It was always seen, but we’ve seen it crumbling, we’ve seen the very fabric of destinations and the industry crumble when we’ve seen these thousands and thousands of people disembarking from cruise ships all at the same time and wandering around St. Mark’s in Venice and what have you, can see the damage it’s doing. So one of the things that we are doing actively, and we’re working with a number of organizations and destinations on this.

The way we see it, Paul, is if you don’t understand how much you can take before you break, you’ve got a problem. And a very simple scenario is if I was going down to a supermarket, for example, and buying a week’s worth of groceries, I wouldn’t take one bag. But the way the mentality has gone in a lot of destinations, it’s been, let’s get as much in here as we can and then we’ll work out the rest later. You can’t do that because, of course, it needs a whole of government approach once you start growing in numbers. And again, another simple example of what I’m talking about is you need infrastructure to be built accordingly to the amount of volume of visitors you’re going to get. And that might just be something as simple as car parts, it might be something as simple as public toilets, but these are the things that you need to actually understand. So we call this carrying capacity, and we’re working with destinations now on developing a structure that allows them to understand what the carrying capacity is of their destination till it gets to a certain point. And when it gets to that point, the alarm bells ring and we start ticking other boxes to say, okay, we’ve reached this particular sort of destination.

We now need to consider what the communication strategy is, what the infrastructure strategy is, et cetera. So it’s an ongoing process, if you will. That allows a destination to grow responsibly, that allows a destination to be sustainable, but also ensures that the community, the local stakeholders and the custodians of these cultural heritage assets, both tangible and intangible, are protected and are part of that equation as part of both the conversation and the solution.

Creative Culture: Just to illustrate that. Chris, could you give me a specific example where tourism has really impacted on a local community and what a potential solution was?

Chris: I’ll give you two destinations here because one of them might surprise you, actually. So when we think of over tourism as the term that is now sort of recognized. We tend to think of the larger destinations, we do tend to think of the Venice’s and the Barcelona of the world. Well, let’s have a look at a destination that is in the middle of nowhere. So let’s look at Rapanui Easter Island. Now, Easter Island is what, 3000 miles from the nearest land mass, Chile. It’s 127 sq mile. That’s it. It has a population of just over 6,000. Now, the local government there, and it was supported by the Chilean government, decided that tourism was going to be the mainstay of their economy. And there’s nothing wrong with that. A lot of places around the world, of course, tourism plays a significant part in driving their economy. But what basically happened is they started to market the destination, promote the destination, invite airlines and different operators to visit the destination without having the likes of a carrying capacity study or a revenue capture study or all these various other things that we do in place. So in 2019, they welcomed just over 100,000 visitors to Easter Island to Rapanui with a population of 6,000.

Now, you tell me any destination in the world that can take 15 times its own population in visitation and not have a problem. So basically what happened is the infrastructure began to crumble, the sacred moai, the giant heads of Easter Island that seems to be implanted in everyone’s memory around the world. They began to be desecrated, people clambering over them, taking the perfect funny Instagram shot. There was one case where some guy drove a vehicle, he was at a few drinks, shall we say, and drove a vehicle into one of their most sacred sites, destroying it, can’t be repaired, can’t be fixed. So of course, what happens then is you get friction between the local community and the authorities because the local community has never been part of the discussion. So the saving grace for Rapanui is covid-19 they have an opportunity to rethink it, to take a few steps back and start to really understand what this is all about. What is the opportunity with tourism, what is the value of tourism and how they need to proceed. So that’s one tangible example of a destination that got it completely wrong. The other thing just on that, that again is rarely factored into tourism strategy because a tourism strategy is all about marketing.

With those 100,000 visitors that Rapanui achieved they now, without realizing it, have to deal or had to deal with 20 tons of garbage every day. And when you’re on an island 3000 miles from the nearest landmass, the only way to get rid of it is to burn it. So you can imagine it goes completely against all of the sustainability goals that we’re all trying to achieve. Another destination that is kind of doing it right after suffering from over tourism. And it’s a destination that we’re proud to be working with is Athens. And you would think maybe Athens is a place that would have culture and heritage wrapped around everything it does. But again, when it comes to tourism strategy, tourism marketing and tourism planning, it’s been based upon volume. It’s not been based upon the protection and preservation of assets. It’s not been based upon on how many people we can achieve. It’s about how much revenue we can get through the turnstiles. So the government or the local government of Athens and the mayor of Athens made the decision after consultation with WTACH over the last six or seven months that they were going to completely and radically change the way they do business.

And the community will be the central point. It will be at the heart of everything that they do because of course, culture is not something just from the past. It’s a living, breathing thing. And what they have taken to their hearts is a good place to live, is a good place to visit. And I think if every destination took that kind of attitude, we’d be in a much better place than we are right now.

Creative Culture: Well, that’s really interesting you say that. And of course the impact of COVID as well, giving in essence, I guess, quite a lot of these locations of breathing space to get to review strategies on this sort of issue. But just go back to the last point you made about Athens. Quite interesting. I mean I’d ask you this question. How would you view cultural heritage as having the potential to improve the socio-economic conditions and livelihood of the local community? Because I think that’s kind of what you are alluding to in.

Chris: Well again, it comes down to people’s perception of cultural heritage. A lot of what people would think quite naturally is it’s the bricks and mortar, it’s the Parthenon, it’s the pyramids of Egypt, it’s anchor what et cetera. But it’s not the culture is all about what’s happening now and a lot of it is the intangible stuff. So you talk about cuisine, you talk about different belief systems, you talk about health and wellbeing and that is actually driven from a community base. It’s not something that can be sort of imparted on a place. It has to grow from within. So a lot of the work that we will be doing with Athens in the future and hopefully other islands in Greece will be to do with what is happening today, what is happening in the living, breathing culture of that city, that village, that town, and how we can actually embrace that. But how can we turn the community and use tourism to drive sustainable revenue that’s going to improve their lives and give a sustainable sort of improved social economic conditions? And the other thing about all of this, and again, COVID is the catalyst for this, believe it or not, when destinations are faced with the issues that we have now, particularly with health issues, we have social distancing.

So, as an example, if you want to maintain your visitor flows that you had pre covid-19, the only way to do that is to disperse them into different areas. But you can’t just disperse them because those people in those particular areas need to understand the value of tourism. They need to understand how to manage tourism and how to profit from tourism without actually destroying the goose that laid the golden egg. But with cultural heritage in particular, certainly the historic side of it. History was never made in one place. History is made all over the place. And of course, you can start to disperse people and visitors into areas based upon the historic cultural heritage of a destination. So that gives a whole new opportunity to different destinations. But the key thing here is to ensure that the local community and the custodians of those assets understand how tourism works, understands how it operates, and understands how they can benefit from it. And that has always been missing. It’s always been somebody coming in and saying, oh, I can do this for you. Well, not anymore. It’s got to be done properly and sustainably in the future.

Creative Culture: Chris, how do you think that global brands, and perhaps those global brands outside of the travel industry directly could have a role to play in protecting local communities or helping in this area? And do you have any examples of how brands are actively doing this?

Chris: Well, the simple answer to that is yes and no. I think when it comes to tourism, everyone’s involved in tourism, every major organization, whether it’s a car manufacturer and their cars are used in car rental systems, or whether it’s a technology company and their technology is used in the booking systems or the hotels or whatever it is, everybody somewhere along the line is involved in tourism. And tourism is the largest employer in the world. I think the last pre COVID, it was one in twelve jobs in the world were related to tourism. So the recognition of the need to protect culture and heritage is definitely there, I have to say, and I’m really quite pleased about that, and I’m really quite pleased about the way we’ve been managing it from our organization. Because the key thing is, once culture is gone, it’s gone, it becomes extinct, you can’t plant it, you can’t grow it, it’s finished, it’s over. And the erosion, one of the better phrase of cultural heritage assets around the world was something that was incredibly concerning pre COVID it was kind of our plastic in the ocean, but we didn’t have 50 years to ignore it or pretend it wasn’t there.

So I think every major organization, whether it be a drinks company that sells them at a bar in Bali, or whether, as I say, a car manufacturer who has its cars running around the country there for a car rental business, they all have a responsibility here and they all need to step up. Will it happen? I think it will. Am I aware of any major organizations that are actually putting a foot forward? Not really. All the ones that are doing this and have recognized it are already affiliated with the tourism industry. So by working together, let’s hope that we can start to change the mindset and start to get some of big business putting its money where its mouth is. Because sustainability is not just about the environment, about people and culture.

Creative Culture: That’s really interesting. Thank you, Chris, for that. Just finally, I wanted to ask you, from your point of view, what’s your highest rated cultural heritage tourist sort of environment experience?

Chris: Well, I’ll be honest with you, I’ve had that many because of my previous.

Creative Culture: Maybe a couple of examples.

Chris: Well, I’ll tell you, I’ll give you one. I think the most important one is a 15 year old kid playing on a 2,000 year old amphitheatre stage. That changed my life. But there are certain parts of the world, particularly in places like the Pacific, where you’ve got masses of distance between islands and peoples, where there is some really weird stuff that goes on. Now the Solomon Islands to me are the most mysterious place on Earth. There’s 900 and I think it’s 82 islands in the Solomon’s. A lot of them are basically they’re uninhabited, but because of their isolation, they have some strange stuff. If you know the right people, you can kind of experience. And I’ll give you one example. So they have a thing, and it’s not just in the Solomon’s. It’s in a place called Kiribati. They have a thing called dolphin calling. Now, when I first came across this, I read it in a book by a guy called Colin Wilson. It was a little paragraph about the experience that a British soldier had at the New Hebrides in the 19 thirties. And basically what he said was the chief of this particular tribe thought he was too thin.

He said, we’re going to fatten you up on dolphin meat. He said, okay. So they rode across in a canoe and they got, let’s call it a shaman from another island. And he came back and they put him in a little Farley kind of hut. And the following day he said, right, he said, the dolphins will be here tomorrow. And he said, what do you mean? And cut a long story short, basically what happened is using the power of telepathy, the shaman could actually call the dolphins to the shore. Right? And I’m not going to go into the story is too long, but basically what the soldier said, he said, we fed on dolphin meat for a week and I didn’t like it. So I was on a visit to the Solomon Islands and I was having dinner with some of the senior politicians. There a place called the Heritage Hotel. And I mentioned this to them. I said, Dolphin calling. I said, is it real? He said, oh, yeah. And he pointed to this guy who stood near the beach area. He said, he’s one. So they brought him over and they sat with me and he began to explain how they call the dolphins through the power of telepathy.

And it is absolutely mind blowing, but he actually went deeper than this. And you’re going to find this a little bit farfetched because I’m still trying to get my head around it. But when he was planning how he does this, and he was very shy and he was very embarrassed because the deputy prime minister was with me and various other people, and he was bowing his head as he was explaining these other people were there and they were saying, tell him how you travel in time. And he’s going, no, I don’t travel in time. I’m going. What? Traveling time. What do you mean, traveling time? And he looked at me, he said, some of us said we can travel in time. I said, oh yeah? Explain that then. So this is how he explained it to me, and he said he didn’t do it. He said if I was to wake up in the morning and we have no bread and I have to go to the market, I can go to the market, I can get the bread and I can be back immediately, instantly, I said, okay. I said, how do you do that then?

And he looked at me straight in the eye. This is no word of a lie, Paul. It actually gives me chills. I’m telling you. He looked at me straight in the eye and he said, we bend up the mountains with our minds. The theory of relativity and time travel is all about bending time. When it comes to having weird experiences and really unusual experiences, whether it’s the Stonehenge of Tonga or the pyramid on the island of Savaii in Samoa, there’s so many really amazing things. But meeting people, meeting local people like that, who you can sit with and talk to and they can completely blow your mind, is for me what travel and tourism is all about. And I’ve been so privileged in my life to be able to go around the world and to meet these incredible people. So, yeah, I feel blessed for that.

Creative Culture: Thank you very much, Chris, for that. That’s really very interesting. And the passion that you have for this obviously shines through this, and that’s an incredible story. And it’s all about cultural heritage and it’s all about the rich variety of life that’s out there and that we need to protect. And so therefore, I’d like to thank you very much for your time. It’s been really insightful to learn all about we tack and your initiatives to protect cultural heritage.

Chris: Absolute pleasure, Paul, and thank you very much indeed for inviting me. 

Creative Culture: That’s our pleasure. And for everybody else, thanks for listening. We hope you enjoyed this episode and you can find more podcast episodes by visiting our SoundCloud or website under our Insight section. Make culture work for you.

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