Travel Tips

Global Heritage Fund Co-Founder Talks Sustainable Tourism

Locations in this article:  Santa Barbara, CA

Wat Phu, Laos - Global Heritage Fund ProjectOn recent travels to Guatemala’s Maya ruin of Tikal and to the Maya ruins of Chichen Itza, Coba and Tulum in Mexico, Meg Pier was impacted by seeing fresh paths being cleared for ancient archeological ruins—realizing how progress in developing sustainable tourism can make a real and meaningful difference in local communities.

Jeff Morgan is co-founder of the Global Heritage Fund, which seeks to save the Earth’s most significant and endangered cultural heritage sites in developing countries and regions, through scientific excellence and community development.

Meg Pier: What exactly is a “heritage site” and why are they important?

Jeff Morgan: Heritage sites are important for a wide variety of reasons—a site might represent a masterpiece of human creative genius, or exhibit an important interchange of human values, or bear a unique testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which has disappeared, or be an outstanding example of human interaction with the environment.

Peru's Machu PicchuHeritage sites are also important for their economic value—many sites where we work will generate annual income over the next 20 years in the hundreds of millions of dollars, and be one of the most important economic assets for a region or nation’s development.

MP: Can you explain Global Heritage Fund’s mission?

JM: I lived in Bogota, Colombia when I was young. I visited Santa Marta, where I saw extensive poverty with thousands of people living in the dirt outside Baranquilla with little to eat. Little has changed since and it made me realize I should focus on the poorest countries with the largest sites. How do you bring people out of poverty?

At the same time you’ve got amazing heritage sites that are just being decimated. I am especially interested to help those in deep systemic poverty use their own heritage to provide economic and cultural heritage revitalization.

Learn more in our Cultural Travel section.

You’ve got the best development opportunity for poor countries sitting right in your hand, and most governments just think, “Oh, heritage, that’s high culture that’s not real human development.”

Restoration work underway in Catalhoyuk, TurkeyThey miss the long-term potential and they don’t invest… It is always a distant priority, despite the major potential to bring hundreds of millions of dollars to a poor country which will enable development, schools, hospitals and roads.

MP: Was there a particular catalyst that moved you to take action?

JM: In 2001 I was on Santa Cruz, an island off Santa Barbara, sitting with the head of The Nature Conservancy (California), Steve McCormick. He said, “Jeff, we need more people from the private sector. Why don’t you do something in conservation?”

I started thinking that day how I could make a personal commitment in the conservation world. I wasn’t an orange gibbon specialist or a marine biologist, but did have a degree from Cornell in City and Regional Planning.

I knew I needed to work in the poorest countries, because that is where the real leverage is for philanthropic investment, not where everyone already has a Mercedes and a BMW.

See the world for less. Visit our complete Budget Travel section.

Major heritage sites offer a real economic opportunity– what I call a Trillion Dollar Opportunity for poor countries over the next fifty years. So, in 2002 I really decided to dedicate my life to save heritage sites in really poor areas.

Foguang, China - Global Heritage FundThe planet is losing many of its most unique and one-of-a-kind sites– where there is only one example for an entire civilization… While there are hundreds of Roman amphitheatres across the Mediterranean getting funding, unique, one-of-a kind sites are being lost every year. Most of them happened to be in developing countries.

If you look at where all the money goes, it goes into churches, mosques, synagogues and Buddhist sites. And then it goes into the Classics—Roman and Greek heritage, amphitheaters, temples and plazas.

I had seen over the last decade working that there is a crisis of global scale– we are losing some of our most important heritage and archaeological sites in our generation.

Historic Pingyao, ChinaIn Asia, except for Luang Prabang, Lijiang, Pingyao and a few other examples, we were losing pretty much every intact, historic district. Kathmandu to Chiang Mai has turned into high rise hotels, apartments and strip malls, just like my own California. It kind of got to the point where it was unbearable to go to Asia anymore.

Even in Japan if you go to Kyoto it’s just one big love hotel. So it’s sad, you know, to have such a sacred place like Kyoto in one of the world’s richest countries, getting neon-light love hotels on every block. It just shows poor management. And that’s in Japan. That’s a first-world country.

You can imagine what’s happened in Chiang Mai, Thailand, which was one of Asia’s most intact sacred temple towns, and is now just high-rise apartments and hotels with a few historic sites in between.

Make your travels good for the planet. Visit our Eco-Travel section.

MP: What is the philosophy behind the preservation program?

Restoration project in Lijiang, ChinaJM: GHF’s Preservation by Design is a community-based model where the local people become the stewards and benefit from long-term income and jobs which enable site protection and preservation. The method and process we developed that takes each site through a four-step process: planning, science, community and partnerships.

It’s important to have all four happening in a site conservation program. If you only do the science and you don’t work with the community, then the work will be neglected and fall apart down the road.

If you only do the planning and you don’t do the conservation, then there are no trained conservators or jobs for people on the site to maintain it.

Without partnerships, you have no local co-investment and long-term stewardship in the country.

When it comes to travel, the best thing to do is Ask the Locals [Travel Guides].

MP: Tell me about the projects that you’ve completed.

China’s Lijiang Ancient TownJM: Our first project completed was Lijiang Ancient Town in China, which was started in 2002 and work in 2007. Lijiang today has an approved master conservation plan and we completed over 200 historic Naxi residences.

The Old Town Management Committee of Lijiang has grown from just two people when we started to now over 150 full-time staff. They are taking care of many of the big problems they have had stemming from massive tourism which came from the UNESCO World Heritage designation in 1997. This brought unplanned modern construction inside the ancient city. But, with our master plan in place and approved by all government agencies, we were able to remove over 400,000 meters of cinder-block concrete construction by 2007.

Commercialization became a big problem so a plan was developed to focus on local products and support local stores and craftsmen. So we basically kicked out all the Nike and Adidas stores, and all the other non-native products, and everything had to be made or at least branded locally. Now there are regulations enforced to make sure that shops and their products are more authentic and locally sourced, and neon and signage has been torn down and replaced with beautiful wood-carved signs.

Learn about where preservation efforts have been less successful with The Symbol of 21st Century China Travel: Demolish.

Shengwu Lou, ChinaWe restored about two hundred Naxi historic courtyards focusing on only the poorest families in the community. They went on to do about 400 and kept our Preservation Incentive Fund (PIF) program going.

Despite our efforts and that of the government, the whole place is still just treading water to stay above the negative effects of mass tourism hitting the ancient town. When we started there, there were about 60,000 tourists a year and now there are 3.5 million, mostly Chinese visitors, and the old town has been turned into a bar district with karaoke and late night entertainment blasting music until the early morning. It is sad, but at least the historic fabric and authenticity has been greatly improved and they are working on moving out the karaoke, wine and cigar bars to the new town as we speak.

Learn more: Video: Great Lesser-Known UNESCO World Heritage Sites

MP: What are a couple of the projects that GHF is involved with now?

Chavin de Huantar, PeruJM: The site of Chavin de Huantar in Peru, which dates back to 1500 BC, was a center for ritual and pilgrimage with extensive trade and communication contacts. Chavin society ruled from Ecuador to Chile throughout the entire Andes 2,000 years before the Inca ever came on the scene.

GHF is working to integrate conservation and sustainable community development in order to ensure long-term site appreciation, preservation and sustainability. The conservation team is involved in a range of activities including stabilizing primary monuments, repairing underground structures, locating underground structures with non-intrusive technologies, and cataloguing artifacts. The local community is engaged in conservation and craft training, employment, tourism entrepreneurship and regular consultations regarding the management of the site and its environs.

Learn about traveling in Peru in our South America travel section.

MP: How do you select sites?

The ancient temples at My Son, VietnamJM: There are five main criteria: that the site is endangered; it has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site; there is a proven leader in conservation and a team in place; that there’s in-country matching funding available; and lastly, there’s opportunity for tourism—we don’t tend to work in remote places that don’t have a city or town nearby where we can find skilled people and where there is an opportunity for development – because it’s the tourism that creates the income for the people and sustainability.

MP: How does the Global Heritage Fund interact with UNESCO?

JM: UNESCO World Heritage is an inter-governmental agency which is largely government-funded. We are a privately funded international conservancy.

We work primarily with national governments and keep in close communication with UNESCO people all around the world in all our projects. UNESCO works on the government level to set the rules and regulations and manage the UNESCO World Heritage list.

Get the inside scoop on the UNESCO organization with this report on the contentious campaign to select its current Director-General: UNESCO Names New Leader After Groundbreaking Campaign.

UNESCO logoUNESCO World Heritage has over 990 sites now. Their designation brings major tourism to sites, and suddenly, Angkor Wat’s got 3 million visitors crawling all over that temple. Mass tourism can be a huge destructive force if not managed. This is especially a problem in developing countries without regulations and enforcement.

Machu Picchu, Angkor Wat, Petra … these places that have so many tourists, and the countries are not reinvesting into the site what is needed to stay ahead of the conservation issues. In many cases, the gate fee money is being pulled out and not being reinvested– the site is being used as a cash cow.

MP: How would you have society respond to the demand by such great numbers to see these sites?

JM: Better tourism management. You have to limit use; you have to redirect use to other parts of the monument. You have to put in walkways, so they are not crawling on the monument itself. You have to restrict visitation.

Travel smarter: Tip: Beating the Crowds at Famous Places

It’s just like managing a lake resource or a natural resource. If you go to Versailles, they don’t let you just crawl all over and write graffiti in every room.

In the first world, where there are lots of trained people and lots of resources, the sites are being fairly well taken care of… It’s really the poorest hundred countries where there are the worst problems and, unfortunately, many of the best sites in the world happen to be in those countries. We’re in a crisis situation right now in over 100 countries.

MP: What has been one of your most rewarding moments?

JM: The Guatemalan government just announced $3 million funding for Mirador, that was our biggest success yet from a government funding. We had a big celebration in Guatemala in December, and that was a very good moment because a very poor country is realizing how important what they have is. They are realizing that if they put three million in that site, if it’s done well, it will generate 30 million a year for the next 20 years.

For more information about the Global Heritage Fund, visit

By Meg Pier. Pictures courtesy of the Global Heritage Fund. To read the complete interview, visit Meg’s website,

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