By Julie Harris
In his manual Managing Tourism at World Heritage Sites, Arthur Pedersen advises that “Directing governments, site managers and visitors towards sustainable tourism practices is the only way to ensure the safekeeping of our world’s natural and cultural heritage.” A visit in recent years to Los Haitises National Park in the Dominican Republic demonstrated how difficult it can be to develop, encourage and enforce sustainable tourism practices in many countries, especially when tourists just don’t care.
Two years ago (Christmas 2016) my family set out to visit Los Haitises to see birds, other wildlife, mangroves and the Cueva del Ferrocarril, a cave named after a railway line that once ran alongside the cave to transport bananas and rice. I knew from my work on heritage sites that rock art faces many threats, both natural and human, but I was optimistic that the creation of the national park would help save the heritage of the cave.
After driving from Samaná to begin the journey into the park, we took our seats on a typical tourist boat carrying about 50 people. Our tour guide was a local Indigenous man who was very knowledgeable about the natural and cultural values of the national park and very proud of his Taíno heritage. In the middle of our tour, we arrived at the dock near the cave. Our guide took great care to explain the site’s significance in that it contained a treasure of petroglyphs and petrographs that were at least 500 years old. The pictures and carvings helped document the beliefs and practices of Awarak and Taíno people who populated the Caribbean and Florida prior to European contact. The guide also explained that the caves had been damaged by graffiti from years before the national park was created and urged us to stay away from the walls to protect the rock art from further harm. From that moment on, however, it was clear that many people — especially Dominicans, I am very sorry to report — did not care at all about protecting the art or the natural conditions in the cave. They were there to have fun, take photos and leave their mark.
Several boats disembarked at the cave at exactly the same time — each carrying about 50 people with a single guide trying to herd everyone in multiple languages (French, Spanish and English) to ensure safety and cultural understanding. Graffiti (carved and painted) was everywhere, much of it clearly dated to within a year or two of our visit. People had even carved their names and initials right into the rock art itself. Bright yellow “Caution” tape was set out to protect carvings, but the tape might as well have said “Have Some Fun By Walking Here!” A Dominican woman from our boat quickly added her own name to the walls and took a selfie with her daughter, in spite of our guide’s plea to respect the cave art. I am certain that he could have done nothing to stop her without losing his job.
The big question for me and my family was simply “Did we just help destroy Indigenous cultural heritage by taking this tour?” The answer, unfortunately, was “Yes.” Our dollars helped support the boats and advertisements that draw people to the caves.
Here’s what Lonely Planet says about Cueva del Ferrocarril: “Visitors can hop off their boats to explore a series of caves used by the indigenous Taíno as ceremonial grounds — carvings and pictographs cover the walls and massive stalactites dangle overhead.” It should say “Visitors can hop off their boats to explore a series of caves damaged by people who are looking for selfies. It’s shocking but worth the effort to see what a mess we make of places that tourism dollars make accessible.”
Much of our visit to the Dominican Republic (we stayed at a small lodge owned by a Dominican family) was wonderful, but tourism’s dark side for both cultural and natural heritage was on full display every place we went. The situation at Los Haitises isn’t unique, of course. A more recent trip to Panama revealed similar issues, but with fewer tourists the damage is just starting. I’ve also seen it in the places, such as Johnson’s Canyon in Banff, that are now just memories from my childhood, because so many tramping feet have required concrete walkways and bridges to be built on what were once natural hillsides.
Tourism is not a benign economic force, but it can also improve the lives of local people — we all know that. As a heritage professional, however, I find it increasingly difficult to go anywhere without feeling that I am contributing to cultural and environmental damage. It’s clear that the cost of implementing and enforcing good behaviour is just too great for many countries, including my own. Maybe we need a Tourism Watch organization (modeled on Mining Watch) that will allow people and nature harmed by the actions of Canadian tourism investments (including our personal ones) to seek justice. In the meantime, however, I am trying to rethink (again) where I visit, why and how to help limit my contributions to the damage done.