With the help of heritage

UNESCO-classified heritage is an integral part of Macau’s tourism offer. But it could be more and it could be better, say experts

Not wanting Macau to base its image as a tourist destination on gambling (as we show in another text of this special report), what alternatives exist? 

It is true that Macau is currently positioning itself as a World Centre of Tourism and Leisure “as it develops into a quality international tourist destination” but this formulation is vague and works best as an aggregation of a number of valences. 

One of them is cultural tourism – in particular, the tourism that results from the anointment of UNESCO-classified heritage in 2005. 

The government’s efforts to develop cultural heritage tourism are public, in an attempt to diversify the image of Macau beyond that of a gambling city. But are these efforts working? 

Opinions are divided. 

“However Macau residents strongly endorse the essence of the conservation of historic sites and structures, and support the promotion of heritage tourism to attract the international community,” according to Derrick Tam of the Macau Heritage Ambassadors Association, “the MSAR heritage protection policy is merely for window dressing as the authorities have tried to undermine historic buildings for economic growth and urban redevelopment regardless of heritage preservation.” 

A professor at Sun Yat-sen University, Guangzhou, Tam expressed these views in a very critical text titled Heritage Protection, Tourism and Urban Planning in Macao (2014), claiming: “The MSAR Government has failed to strike the correct balance between urbanisation, heritage protection and cultural tourism . . . with Beijing encouraging Macau to spend more effort on the creation of a ‘world-class tourism-leisure centre’, the MSAR Government must advance heritage protection.” 

Regardless, it is certain that UNESCO-classified heritage has had an impact upon local tourism. Maria Younghee Lee, a professor at the Faculty of Hospitality and Tourism Management (Macau University of Science and Technology) speaks to our magazine “the issue of congestion. For example, the Ruins of St. Paul’s Cathedral are [deemed] one of the factors influencing [over]crowding because it tends to be recognised as the symbol of Macau.” 

“The typical image of Macau is that of a gambling city, thus the World Heritage sites of Macau might contribute to the improvement of Macau’s image” –  Maria Younghee Lee

“There are many reasons in terms for visitor congestion in these places,” she asserts. “For example, the average length of stay of visitors in the World Heritage sites of Macau is two hours because of limited parking, lack of resting benches and group package tours led by tour guides. Within two hours, visitors tend to visit only the Ruins of St. Paul’s Cathedral.” 

Another question is the level of knowledge tourists can attain from the places near the Ruins of St. Paul’s. Interviewed by Macau Business, Professor Lee explains: “Based upon my research, most visitors tend to have limited information about the Ruins of St. Paul’s Cathedral, which means that tourists recognise that it is just a representative tourism resource and symbol of Macau.  

“Accordingly, to enhance the quality of tourists’ experiences by providing heritage information at heritage sites is necessary in Macau. By way of reference, in Dublin many heritage visitors get rich information about heritage by the AR (Augmented Reality) mobile heritage application provided by the government.” 

Professor Lee is of the opinion that “the typical image of Macau is that of a gambling city, thus the World Heritage sites of Macau might contribute to the improvement of Macau’s image.”  

But can gambling and heritage co-exist?  

“Macau has been suffering from the typical image of Macau which is likely to be that of a ‘gambling city’. Even though casinos provide job opportunities for residents and contribute to the improvement of the regional economy there exist a lot of negative impacts in terms of the laziness of young local people for study, family breakdown and increasing crime rate.  

“Thus, to change the gambling related image is an important issue for Macau’s sustainability for future generations. The World Heritage Sites of Macau might have a possibility to counteract the negative effects of casinos by heritage tourism, contributing to the diversification of the casino-dominated industry in Macau.” 

Commodification of heritage  

In this conversation with Macau Business, MUST Professor Maria Younghee Lee also addressed one of the most fractured issues surrounding the topic, that of the commodification of heritage. 

She identifies two major perspectives: “One is a positive perspective. According to the positive view, to commodify heritage might contribute to preserving heritage sites because it is a good way to raise funding for the conservation and management of heritage.  

“The other one is a negative perspective, which is opposition to the commodification of heritage resources. For example, if the heritage is fragile – like the earthen buildings of the Hakka people of Mainland China – the commodification of heritage needs to be prohibited for the preservation of heritage and maintenance of the value of heritage.”