Some reflections on the Inaugural World Heritage UK conference, by Coralie Acheson

Conference Saltaire October 2015, News

Coralie Acheson

Last week a large group of professionals working with or alongside World Heritage Sites got together in Saltaire for the inaugural World Heritage UK conference, alongside a few ‘interested observers’ like myself. It was a great two days with a real buzz of positivity and creativity in the room.

There were a number of key ideas and themes that emerged, reflecting the fact that, although the UK’s World Heritage Sites are enormously varied in content, size, visitor numbers and management structure, there are areas of commonality shared across them.

The first of these is that there should be no shame in promoting these wonderful places to funding organisations, government and businesses. Not only are World Heritage Sites truly special places, they have great economic potential. Keith Nichol (DCMS) reminded us that the English visitor economy is worth £106bn to the national economy. Heritage already plays a sizeable role in both actual visitor spend, but also in contributing to ‘Brand Britain’. The case studies from the Jurassic Coast, the Cornwall and West Devon Mining Landscape and Edinburgh showed ways in which the World Heritage Site’s brand identity could be used in local business partnerships, giving a boost to products and services in the area while contributing to future conservation work.

The theme of destination management emerged throughout the conference. World Heritage Sites have the potential to be a major draw for bringing tourists into local areas, not just to the sites themselves. Visitor experience starts before they arrive at the site itself, and involves many aspects of the local community. Without forethought and integration with local businesses and the community this can lead to negative experiences, but there is a lot of potential for expanding the destination experience to benefit visitors, other attractions in the area, as well as the shops, restaurants and hotels in the surrounding region.

Finally the last theme I noticed related to the importance of storytelling and narrative, not just at a site level, but in regional and national spheres also. James Berresford from Visit England made the point that people don’t really visit England, they visit places in England, although this is arguably different for Scotland and Wales which have a strong ‘national brand’. In the breakout sessions there were a number of suggestions of how inter-site narratives could be created, both between World Heritage Sites across the country, and at other sites in the local area. These kind of approaches have been developed at the Cornwall and West Devon and Loire Valley sites presented at the conference, and no doubt elsewhere too, but could also be attempted outside of the large landscape wide World Heritage Sites. Perhaps with these kind of approaches Keith Nichol’s assertion that UK World Heritage is greater than the sum of its parts could be fully developed.

Coralie Acheson is studying for a PhD at the University of Birmingham