After a report by the World Heritage Committee on heritage conservation practices in Macau – in anticipation of their annual meeting in July – brought into question some of the MSAR’s practices, Business Daily sat down with Sharif Shams Imon, head of the Heritage Management Programme at the Institute for Tourism Studies (IFT) to shed light on the WHC’s remarks. Drawing from a decade of hands-on heritage conservation experience, Imon spoke about tourism management and urban planning, the lack of heritage-related employment opportunities and public-private partnerships in conservation that have proven successful elsewhere

What is your experience in heritage conservation?
Apart from academic functions, I am a member of ICOMOS [International Council on Monuments and Sites], UNESCO’s advisory body on cultural matters. I do regular evaluations of [World Heritage] nominations in other countries, such as India and North and South Korea, and monitoring missions. From time to time, I get involved in training for administrators, or professionals. I also advise governments to prepare nominations and help them prepare for the evaluation. These are my general activities related to heritage in UNESCO and ICOMOS.
Then, I am involved in training programmes related to heritage in different places. One of the programmes that we run in IFT (Institute for Tourism Studies) with UNESCO is called the heritage specialist guides’ training programme. Guides play an important role in heritage sites, and it is important to ensure they actually communicate the value of the site properly, to encourage proper management and visitor management.

The recent World Heritage Committee report criticises China and the local government’s performance on heritage preservation practices. This has happened a few times in the past, as with the Guia Lighthouse case, when several construction projects near the hill would have affected its visibility.
There was a problem with the Guia Lighthouse, and local people complained to UNESCO, so UNESCO sent a monitoring mission. Because of the [World Heritage] Convention, of which China is a signatory, that gives UNESCO the power to send a monitoring mission. You can say it is a diplomatic matter. They can’t force it if China refuses to accept the mission. But, say, if China does not bind to the request, then UNESCO can take action, and the actions can be putting ‘in danger’ or de-listing it. In the case of Macau, they will try their best not to de-list it. But if at one point they realize that the effect is going to be irreversible, that it is going to have a negative impact on the site, they can put it on the ‘in danger’ list. Everybody becomes aware that there is something negative happening, and if the main value is lost, then they can de-list it.

Following the first problems related to the Guia site in 2006-2007, UNESCO has been monitoring the situation here. In a follow-up, the Macau SAR Government was supposed to send a Protection and Management Plan (PMP) to UNESCO, initially in 2013, then in 2015. None of this happened. Why?
The government has to go through certain procedures and it has its own political environment. Urban planning law is a big issue in Macau, because it is going to affect many things that are developing. Even the [Cultural] Heritage [Protection] law was adopted almost at the same time, because they are related. UNESCO understands that different countries have different types of political situations, so they can’t be too strict. So they are flexible, as long as they see that the State Party is trying. I’ll give you an example. Dresden [Germany] was on the World Heritage list. But they wanted to construct a bridge over a river, which would be affecting the site directly. So UNESCO alerted them, but the city decided to go ahead with the bridge. So UNESCO de-listed Dresden, because there was no other choice. But Macau is not doing that. China is not doing that. They are trying to find a way to solve the problem. But it is difficult to set a strict deadline and force a country to do something.

What other reasons exist for the government taking so long to produce and deliver the PMP?
I don’t know exactly why it is not done yet, because the process has been ongoing for quite a long time. Maybe they have to co-ordinate with other departments – and that’s one possibility – and here the co-ordination is not really so good, so sometimes it is delayed just because other government departments have a slow response. Or there might be issues – and then again these are just assumptions – that require certain legal support, which are just not in place yet. So until that is resolved, they can’t really do anything about it, and of course, many things are tied to the urban planning development of Macau.

In the WHC report, it reads that ‘it is finally recommended that the Committee requests the State Party [China] to ensure that Heritage Impact Assessments (HIAs) are carried out for all new major construction projects.’ Does that suggest that HIAs are not taking place regularly?
It has to be defined in the law. It cannot be ad hoc. You can always argue that HIAs cost money, but the contractor or the developer must be at the cost. And it is by law. Hong Kong has it. Macau doesn’t have it. I read an unofficial English translation of the heritage law, but it is not defined there, as far as I know. HIA must be enshrined in the law, that within a certain radius of a heritage site, an HIA must be conducted, and how it should be conducted must also be specified. It should explain who will pay, or who can be hired. So the law has to be very clear about that, how to ensure impartiality in a proper assessment.

Have you had a part, working at IFT, in the preparation of the PMP?
We were hired as consultants for the IC [Cultural Affairs Bureau]. I, with some of my colleagues, developed one chapter of the plan, which is the tourism management plan. This is the property of the IC, so I can’t disclose details.

Which cases would be informative vis-à-vis tourism management as it applies to Macau?
Tourism management is a big topic. It can work at the city level and at the site level. For instance, for tourism management at the Ruins of Saint Paul’s, you cannot deal with it without addressing the general tourism management assessment in the city, because it is a question of how you distribute people to different places, how buses are run, where they stop, and so on. [For the PMP] we looked at some examples in Europe and Southeast Asia, and, overall, tourism policies in other countries. We looked at some places which have good management systems, and examined research papers published on tourism management practices to study how people carry out visitors’ research, for example, who comes, at what times, bottlenecks, visitor behaviour, those kinds of things.

Do you think that relocating the buses that park near the ruins to Tap Seac Square will be effective from the point of view of the population and the tourists?
It is a specific case, but you have to see how it ties to overall tourism movement in that area, because parking buses very close to the site is [a practice] discouraged everywhere. Maybe it is a bit far and you have to climb a slope, and so it may not be convenient for the elders or people with some movement disabilities. But in some places this is done for the sake of the site’s management. If buses are too close, of course, it is not convenient for the residents there. Buses that keep their engines running create pollution. This is an issue of how you look into the overall positive and negative sides. There is no perfect solution. In some countries, they may use a second set of transportation, which is less polluting and does not create noise, to move people in small groups. I think the Macau government is already discussing installing escalators at some places. But again, they have to think about how it is going to impact [sites] and on how it is done, if it is sensitively done.

The local government insists that public consultation be part of those processes. Do you believe that it is important to have the public consulted on such matters?
Public consultation is definitely important, but how it is done is also very important. It can be just an ‘eyewash,’ or it can be really empowering to the people. So there is a huge range of things that can be called public participation. In principle, it should be transparent, because public participation should be opened to everyone, if it is properly done, and a good method of public education. When people get involved, and see what has been done or how it is being done, they understand these things better, and with every round of this kind of public engagement, they become wiser, and start to make better decisions.

But considering a matter such as height restrictions, as in the development of Zone B or Fisherman’s Wharf – which have also been raised by WHC in its report – shouldn’t it be for specialists to decide upon?
Definitely. One thing is that it depends on transparency, but honesty is also an important issue. You can present a very technical and problematic matter nicely, because sometimes the public is not in a position to understand all the technical details. Then, we have to trust the government. But civic society, and intellectuals and professionals, should act like a check and balance body. So if there is a thing that the government could do in a better way, they raise their voice and talk about it. They can also tell the public if there are any flaws. An active civic body is very important to really make public participation work. Sometimes, it is not about bad intentions. The government really has good intentions, but again, it is always good to have some balance mechanism, so that if they make a mistake, it can be pointed out and solved.

What about the private sector, is it cooperating with the local government in heritage preservation matters?
I think it is difficult to judge. Everybody has his or her own interest. So business people also have their own interests. It is natural that they will try to protect their interests. Normally, it is the government who needs to ensure that public interest is protected. [Companies’ involvement] usually stands under Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). But if there is no law, the corporate bodies normally do not do anything. Normally. I am not saying that there are no exceptions. A simple example is environmental protection. If it is required by law then everybody must follow it. But if there is no such law, they don’t mind polluting the rivers, or wasting energy.

Based on your international experience, are there ways to allow business to profit from heritage?
There are good examples in Penang, Malaysia. What they did, in the World Heritage area, George Town, is that some of the historic buildings have been ‘adopted’ by corporations. HSBC [bank] has one of their main offices there. But they do that under certain conditions. They have to make sure that the conservation work and maintenance are properly done. In another project in Penang that is a private initiative, Suffolk House, the many columns of the building could be ‘adopted.’ You can adopt one column, as an individual or organization, your name will be there, and you donate a certain amount of money which is spent for the conservation of the building. It is like a partnership. It is a tangible contribution they make, by putting money, and they get an intangible benefit, which is like ‘we are a good company, we care for cultural heritage.’

Once businesses partner up with governments in the management of sites, they can get some publicity, as in the Penang case you mentioned. But is it possible for the businesses to make money out of it?
I don’t know, because the main problem is the legal issue. If the government funds a project, and if somebody makes money out of it, it is a problem. There are different mechanisms, but it has to be done within the legal framework of that particular country. In the case of Macau, the government can be a kind of facilitator, if it is a private property, so they can find another partner who is interested in investing, but then it has to be some kind of agreement that doesn’t look like someone is just financing a private property. On the other hand, many museums, for example, are privately-owned and make money by organizing activities and selling souvenirs. There are also many heritage houses that are open to the public, and they charge visitors. It is done in many cases, like the places I mentioned in Penang, or in some other countries where these corporations own such properties. This confers on them a kind of prestige and that’s public image.

Do you think that Macau has enough people trained to carry out heritage conservation work, or is this still a field lacking local ‘talent’?
What Macau needs is more heritage management people. You treat a building because it has a problem, but once the treatment is over, then, rehabilitation can be very long in terms of ensuring survival, ensuring that people really understand its value, that they have a purpose in contemporary society. And that’s the domain of heritage management. IFT is the only institution in Macau producing graduates in heritage management and many of our students are actually doing Master’s and PhD degrees after that, and some are coming back, but the problem is the employment in Macau. In the government department, I think it is very limited scope, while the private sector is not well developed. So, in terms of talent, you can train people, but if there is no opportunity for them to work, then, nobody will be interested in that field.

A final question about the two buildings that have recently been affected by neighbouring constructions – the listed Moorish Barracks and the Lou Kau Mansion. Could these problems have been avoided?
Management. This is not the scope of preservation. It is the scope of management. For the case of Lou Kau mansion, if it was in another country, there would be an HIA. If I start a construction, will the vibration affect this building? If I dig into the ground, is it going to affect the foundations of the building? If the studies show that there might be an impact, then, the developer has to have mitigation measures in place and the government has to be satisfied with that. That’s why regular monitoring is so important. In some countries, they have local people as the first respondents or informants. They have a community body who lives there, and they walk around, maybe once a week or once a month, and if they notice something – because they know the place more intimately than an outside expert – they can inform. And then you have more longer-term [measures], once a year or once every five years, when experts would come and check. Without any measurement, you cannot really tell.