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Territorial development, tourism, and the protection of World Heritage Sites: issues of geopolitical conflict

Mark Bailoni
Traduction de Anne Mc Bryde
Cet article est une traduction de :
Développement territorial, tourisme et protection des sites classés au Patrimoine mondial : enjeux de conflits géopolitiques [fr]
Autre(s) traduction(s) de cet article :
Sviluppo territoriale, turismo e protezione dei siti Patrimonio Mondiale: Poste in gioco e conflitti geopolitici [it]


This paper uses critical geopolitical analysis to examine local conflicts over development projects that could threaten the environment, economic development, and/or landscape amenities of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. In particular, it examines the case of the contested construction of a hydroelectric dam in Portugal, close to the Alto Douro Wine Region, a World Heritage Site. Tourism issues are key in sites where the World Heritage listing, which can bring substantial revenue, is threatened by a development project. These development disputes are primarily conflicts of interest between various stakeholders, acting at different scales and defending their own concerns and perceptions, from local protesters to state representatives on the World Heritage Committee. As with other types of conflict, World Heritage listing reinforces the planning conflict by generating multiple interests, responding to contradictory functional, heritage, landscape, and identity considerations.

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Peer-reviewed article

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1In Europe, inclusion on the UNESCO World Heritage List is regularly called into question by the development of projects that could alter the specific character and/or landscape of the sites concerned. This raises the question of the feasibility of carrying out development projects in protected areas. Does the World Heritage status prevent any change in or renewal of the listed sites and their immediate surroundings, transforming them into vast museum areas? Beyond this questioning of the constraints on development in listed sites, other issues emerge, both economic and geopolitical.

2Indeed, if these projects are contested because they could call into question the UNESCO classification, they are also challenged due to their impact on the local environment and neighbourhood in a more frequent protest reaction, as contestation has become almost systematic for any development project (Subra, 2007). Thus, whether or not to maintain the listing has become a central issue in development conflicts concerning these sites. In fact, the de-listing of a World Heritage Site is perceived by tourism stakeholders and certain local economic sectors as a substantial risk to local attractiveness. The iconic UNESCO label is considered, in certain sites, as a formidable lever to attract tourists and investments, and to promote the territory. Lionel Prigent (2011) of course explains that the 'World Heritage' label is not a magic recipe for development: it is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition (our translation, italics indicate direct or translated quotations throughout the text) and many other studies (Beck, 2006; Hall, 2006; Prud'homme et al., 2008) reach the same conclusion. However, numerous local political and economic actors still make the correlation between being listed and tourism development (Prigent, 2011), or at least worry about the impact of a possible de-listing on the prestige of the site and its qualitative image, as expressed by some of the actors encountered in the framework of this study. Hence, this threat is used by opponents of development projects in or near World Heritage Sites, in the name of economic and tourist activities.

3This article aims to study development conflicts in World Heritage Sites, with a particular focus on issues and representations related to tourism. It uses a critical geopolitical approach to analyse how the attractiveness of tourism and the economic stakes in these territories reinforce the contestation of certain non-tourist planning/development projects and the conflicts of interest between numerous actors: local residents, environmentalists, investors, tourism professionals, governments, the World Heritage Committee (WHC), environmental and heritage experts, and more.

I. The local geopolitical approach and heritage studies

4Economic and tourism issues in World Heritage Sites have already been widely described and studied, notably through the analysis of the interactions and strategies of actors (Gravari-Barbas, 2004, 2005; Gravari-Barbas and Jacquot, 2012, 2013; Pedersen, 2002; Rautenberg, 2003). This paper proposes to use a local geopolitical approach to analyse these issues. While classical geopolitics is the study of the relationships between geographical features and international politics (Dahlman, 2009, p. 97), constructed at the state or interstate level, local geopolitics can be likened to a critical geopolitical approach, as it privileges a larger scale analysis.

5According to authors such as Gearoid Ó Tuathail (1996) and John Agnew (2003), critical geopolitics focuses less on the analysis of actors' strategies and more on their discourses (Ó Tuathail, Agnew, 1992; Müller, 2010). It seeks to unveil the manner in which politicians discursively construct geopolitical spaces, often by manipulating geographical facts for strategic purposes (Dahlman, 2009, p. 98). Moreover, critical geopolitics analyses rivalries between all actors at all levels, not only heads of state or the military, but also local politician, NGOs, environmentalists, citizens' associations, lobbying groups, firms, and more. The local geopolitical approach, which developed in France from the 1980s onwards, notably through the work of Philippe Subra (2016) and Barbara Loyer in the wake of studies by Yves Lacoste and Béatrice Giblin, can be described as a critical approach. In fact, these geographers use this approach to contradictory discourses and representations so as to address what appear to be new fields of study in geopolitics, including electoral processes, immigration, regional and local identities, segregation, social conflicts, and spatial planning processes, in large-scale territories such as cities or regions. Their methodology is based on an analysis of the perceptions and representations of all actors involved in power rivalries on a territory (Lacoste, 1995, p. 3, our translation).

6Within the framework of this critical approach, heritage is intrinsically a geopolitical issue, just like tourism (Giblin, 2007). In fact, the issue of heritage preservation is linked to spatial issues and geographers’ concerns, such as landscape, environmental protection, planning, and economic development. Moreover, perceptions of heritage, and therefore of the need for its protection/preservation, are highly subjective and closely linked to the identity references of each local population, ethnicity, or nation. Thus, according to Maria Gravari-Barbas and Vincent Veschambre (2003, p. 71, our translation), the reference to heritage appears closely linked to issues of space appropriation and, by the same token, to conflicts between social groups seeking to position themselves, to assert their claims, to construct or control territories, in short, to construct society. The arguments used to defend heritage then become discourses of a truly geopolitical nature.

7Moreover, several recent works have shown the hold of states on the WHC, both in the process of listing of sites and in their management (Meskell, 2015; Meskell et al. , 2015; Bertacchini et al. , 2015). They also show that the contemporary international context tends to challenge the traditional balances of power and authority within UNESCO. Indeed, the influence of states such as China, India, Brazil, and South Africa has grown over the last twenty years, modifying the usual decision-making processes within the WHC and imposing greater multilateralism. Lynn Meskell (2015, p. 226) explains that over the past few years the World Heritage Committee has become increasingly politicized and confrontational (…). From this perspective, the politics around designating World Heritage site are not dissimilar from those fraught international deliberations over nuclear disarmament or climate change. In this context, ICOMOS and other archaeological, heritage, or environmental experts are often criticized by ambassadors and political representatives of non-European states. Delegates from emerging states denounce the Eurocentric approach to heritage and economic development issues in their reports and seek to counterbalance the historical dominance of 'Western' states on the WHC (Frey et al., 2013). The position of each state in the WHC is then primarily determined by matters of national prestige and identity affirmation, domestic tourism interests, political arrangements, or international agreements on economic, cultural, or strategic issues. World Heritage appears to be an international geopolitical issue.

8Sites on the World Heritage List are even deliberate targets of conflict and war, such as the Old City of Sana'a in Yemen, the ruins of Palmyra in Syria, the Preah Vihear temple in Cambodia, and the monuments of Timbuktu in Mali. Several authors have already analysed the international geopolitical issues of cultural appropriation or the role of World Heritage and UNESCO in wars or inter-state rivalries (Silverman, 2010; Van der Auwera, 2012; Meskell, 2015). This paper aims to address the notion of geopolitical conflict in a broader approach. Indeed, the protection of a number of World Heritage Sites is at stake in local geopolitical conflicts, becoming a central argument of opponents to development projects.

  • 1 For the case study proposed in this paper, in the Upper Douro wine region, 11 interviews were condu (...)

9Within the framework of this approach, the main sources of information for the study were direct interviews with targeted actors; qualitative monitoring of the regional press and of the blogs, social networks, and websites of the actors involved; and extensive fieldwork1 (2011, 2013 and 2018), all of which provided a better understanding of the construction of contradictory discourses. The paper focuses on a case study, that of the Alto Douro Wine Region, a major tourist destination in Portugal, which has been on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 2001, where environmental activists, tourism stakeholders, and local residents have mobilised to protest against the construction of a hydroelectric dam.

II. Planning, heritage, and local geopolitical conflicts

10Planning processes, especially if they lead to changes in land use, are sources of conflict. Barry Cullingworth and Vincent Nadin (2006, p. 2) even explain that politics, conflicts and dispute are at the centre of land use planning. Conflict arises because of the competing demands for the use of land, because of the externality effects that arise when the use of land changes, and because of the uneven distribution of costs and benefits which results from development. If there were no conflicts, there would be no need for planning. Indeed, planning might usefully be defined as the process by which government resolves disputes about land uses.

11In fact, while the first objections to development projects appeared in the 1950s, they became increasingly numerous from the 1970s onwards, emerging as systematic and symptomatic for any project of relative importance (Dziedzicki, 2003; Bailoni, 2013), whether it be energy facilities (power stations, dams, wind turbines, etc.); transport infrastructure (roads, railways, airports, etc.); any other type of public facility that could potentially cause disruption; urban renewal projects; housing programs generating urban sprawl; and more. These disputes, which have become commonplace and widespread, illustrate the trivialisation of contestation (Subra, 2007, p. 128).

12Planning conflicts are games pitting various adversarial actors with divergent ambitions, contradictory perceptions, and personal and collective interests concerning the evolution of a given territory. Opposition arises from local issues and from global concerns, particularly regarding environmental protection. Opponents are typically local residents, environmentalists, committed citizens, politicians, local history or heritage associations and societies, economic actors, lobbyists, and/or corporations (Wolsink, 1994; Dziedzicki, 2003). Their mobilisation and discourses are often similar and shared, even if their initial motivations and profiles diverge.

13Hence, these planning conflicts – a notion that overlaps with ideas of conflict of use or environmental conflict – are geopolitical disputes, in which arguments are constructed by using perceptions of singularity and potential development of territories, environment, and landscapes. These feelings of territorial singularity often stem from a desire to defend heritage elements and contribute to defining local identity, with heritage playing the role of identity cement (Gravari-Barbas and Veschambre, 2003, p. 73). Opponents of a development project therefore seek to preserve the environment, avoid disruption and pollution, protect an iconic heritage or landscape, and also defend what are perceived as elements of local identity (Bailoni, 2013).

14Moreover, this uniqueness of the heritage is sometimes highlighted by labels, such as entry on the UNESCO World Heritage List. This sort of recognition can enhance the tourist attractiveness of the site, and thus, can give it substantial economic value (Bertacchini and Saccone, 2012; Cassel and Pashkevich, 2014; Frey and Steiner, 2011; Frey et al., 2013). For Lynn Meskell (2015, p. 226), World Heritage designation is a political business. In this case, any change in the site and its landscape can challenge and affect the viability of this value and the induced tourism activities. Thus, each development project can cause a conflict of interest between developers and local actors, with contradictory rationales of preservation versus exploitation; local appropriation versus tourism (Gravari-Barbas and Veschambre, 2003, p. 76, our translation). The conflict is no longer only about the characteristics of the project, but also concerns maintaining the classification or label for the site. Indeed, UNESCO can directly protest against a development project and go so far as to remove a site from the World Heritage List, as was the case in 2009, when the WHC decided to downgrade the Elbe Valley in Dresden, due to the construction of a four-lane road bridge crossing the perimeter and undermining the Outstanding Universal Value as defined at the time of listing.

15A number of World Heritage Sites are affected by planning conflicts, and the issues of tourism development are questioned from different angles. There are many examples in Europe, which is characterised by a high concentration of UNESCO sites, a highly developed tourism sector generating significant revenue, and powerful disputes over land use planning. For example, the proposed redevelopment of a 1960s-70s shopping centre and construction of a new futuristic hotel within the World Heritage city centre of Edinburgh has triggered a planning dispute, raising the question of the apparent incompatibility between conservation and redevelopment in designated areas. Similar debates also exist in Florence and Seville, two major tourist destinations whose main attractions are listed as World Heritage Sites. The case of Bath can also be cited: in this World Heritage city in the southwest of England, the development of car parks and a park-and-ride system – to better accommodate tourists – is contested because it could alter the surrounding rural landscape. Furthermore, Liverpool's Merchant Port is even listed as a World Heritage in Danger, due to urban renewal schemes on former port sites at the edge of the listed area, the Liverpool Waters project (Jones, 2015). The historic centre of Vienna is also on this List of World Heritage in Danger, due to the Heumarkt Neu project, which involves the construction of a 66-metre-high residential tower, as opposed to the 43-metre-high structure permitted, in the heart of an area with no particular architectural appeal rebuilt after the Second World War. The city is so dependent on tourism that the loss of the UNESCO label could have consequences for its attractiveness.

16All these local geopolitical conflicts are caused by the divergent issues of development and protection. Tourism often appears to be threatened by these development projects, which could undermine the heritage resources and landscape amenities enjoyed by tourists. In each case, questions are raised about the role, position, and actions of UNESCO, and the World Heritage listing is questioned as well. The iconic Douro Valley in Portugal has found itself at the heart of this type of conflict and debate.

III. The Douro Valley: a tourist mecca in Portugal; a World Heritage Site classification under threat

  • 2 The expression has been used systematically by project actors since its launch, in particular by Ib (...)

17As part of its energy transition strategy, Portugal has undertaken to increase its electricity production from renewable resources. To this end, in 2007 the nation launched what it described as the largest hydroelectric project in Europe for at least 25 years2. This project, called the Programa Nacional de Barragens com Elevado Potencial Hidroeléctrico (national program of dams with high hydroelectric potential, or PNBEPH) plans to construct eight new dams to accompany the development of wind energy. Their large reservoirs would reduce interannual and daily fluctuations in wind and hydro power production. In fact, these reservoirs can be filled by pumping from downstream to upstream, using electricity at the time of surplus production from wind turbines (Bailoni, Deshaies, 2014).

18However, even if these dams and their reservoirs can be considered as essential facilities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, they are also viewed as sources of local disruption, especially for landscapes and ecosystems. The projects are thus contested, causing local geopolitical conflicts. The main opposition has arisen in the Rio Tua valley, a tributary of the Douro. EDP (Energias de Portugal), the main producer and distributor of electricity in Portugal, has built a 108-metre high dam about one kilometre from the confluence. Its reservoir extends 27 kilometres upstream. The plant is expected to produce around 585 GWh annually. Construction began in 2011 and, despite protests and appeals, was completed in 2017 and the dam went into operation.

19On the one hand, EDP, the Portuguese government that partly financed the project, the main political parties, and many local politicians supported this 370 million euro investment, explaining that the dam will create clean and renewable energy, as it will reduce carbon emissions (a reduction of around 470,000 tonnes of CO2 annually compared to a coal-fired power plant). EDP adds that the dam is essential to increase the efficiency of wind energy, and its reservoir should be considered as an energy reserve.

20On the other hand, the opponents formed the Salvar o Tua platform, "Save the Tua," bringing together activists from small environmentalist or far-left parties, environmental organisations, local economic actors, and residents' associations. They denounced first of all the environmental impact of the dam and its reservoir on the valley's ecosystems. The Rio Tua was described as one of the last wild rivers in Europe even though this expression is frequently used for many European rivers affected by development conflicts. Opponents also argued for the preservation of the region's traditional landscapes and cultural identity, which they said were threatened by hydroelectric installations and high-voltage power lines. In addition, they challenged the destruction of a railway line that ran along the valley floor and was described as a heritage feature. They explained that the line could have been redeveloped for tourism purposes. Finally, local winegrowers opposed the dam for fear of the impacts of the reservoir and the water body on the local climate and humidity, and thus on the future quality of the wine.

21In the first phase of the conflict, before construction of the dam, opponents mainly argued for protection of the environment, the landscape, and the small-scale local heritage. They organised classic opposition actions, such as demonstrations, happenings, short-lived camps, petitions, and other such initiatives. They also drew on the experiences of other development conflicts in Portugal and Europe, such as the protest against the Rio Minho and Rio Côa dams, which were withdrawn following mobilisations in the name of heritage protection (Bailoni, Deshaies, 2014; Gonçalves, 2001; Wateau, 2010). However, these initial actions against the Foz Tua dam project were not successful.

22So, in a second phase, the opponents sought to accentuate their actions, involving new actors and mobilising around economic and tourist issues. They then decided to alert UNESCO, showing that the project could have irreparable effects on the Upper Douro Wine Region, which has been on the World Heritage List since 2001. The WHC considered that this long tradition of viticulture has produced a cultural landscape of outstanding beauty that reflects its technological, social and economic evolution.3 Although it is not in the protected area, the dam site is in the immediate vicinity of the boundary of this area, as well as of the port wine production region. Its visual impact from the Douro valley and the protected area is therefore significant, as is that of the high-voltage line. With this action, the opponents raise the question of whether the Alto Douro Wine Region should remain on the World Heritage List. The loss of the UNESCO classification would have disastrous effects on the prestige, tourist attractiveness, and economy of the whole of Portugal. This threat has rallied the tourism and viticulture stakeholders in the protected area and beyond against the dam (Melo, 2011).

  • 4 The UNESCO World Heritage Committee mandates ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites), (...)

23UNESCO reacted and sent ICOMOS experts to the site.4 Their report concluded that the dam would have what they called severe and irreversible effects on the landscape (ICOMOS, 2011). The WHC then decided to carry out further analysis in 2012. The Portuguese government asked EDP to slow down – but not stop – the work until UNESCO's final decision was rendered.

24EDP then sought to counter the main criticisms of ICOMOS experts and opponents. Edouardo Souto de Moura, one of Portugal's most famous architects and winner of the prestigious Pritzker Prize, was recruited by the company to find solutions to reduce the visual impact of the dam. In his report, the main proposal is to partially bury the power plant and to reconstitute agricultural terraces above it, incorporating local elements such as granite stones or olive trees. Although his proposals are very limited and far from revolutionary, EDP has bought an image, a reputation, and an architectural guarantee. EDP has included these measures in its amended project, along with a commitment to finance a local history museum and new tourist, recreation, and transport infrastructures around the reservoir. The company wants to show that the dam will ultimately be an opportunity for economic development and tourist inducement. EDP also explained that the hydroelectric facilities are an integral part of the cultural identity and landscapes of the Douro basin, as eight other dams already exist, allowing the regulation of the Douro's flow and the navigation of tourist boats from Porto. Thus, EDP has launched a real acceptability strategy, even a marketing campaign to promote its project.

  • 5 "É uma decisão vergonhosa e que envergonha a própria Unesco. (...) Ficou provado que quem manda na (...)
  • 6 "Um verdadeiro crime contra o património, o ambiente e o desenvolvimento local".

25Following new expertise and reports (WHC, ICOMOS, IUCN, 2013), the WHC decided in June 2013 to keep the Alto Douro Wine Region on the list, and only requested some technical adjustments on the high voltage lines and water supply. The Portuguese government and EDP welcomed this decision, and of course the opponents denounced it. They decried the fact that the WHC did not follow the recommendations of the ICOMOS expert report. For example, João Branco, president of Quercus, an environmentalist organisation involved in Salvar o Tua, said that it was a shameful decision that dishonours UNESCO. (...) It shows that the real UNESCO bosses are the governments that fund it. (...) Governments now know that they can do whatever they want with World Heritage5 (quoted in Público, June 19, 2013, our translation). Joanaz de Melo, a member of GEOTA, another environmentalist organisation, considers this decision a real crime against heritage, the environment, and local development6 (quoted in Expresso, June 19, 2013, our translation). The opponents then continued their struggle, attempting new appeals to the courts and European authorities, but without success.

  • 7 The Foz Tua dam, along with five others in the Douro river basin, was sold by EDP to a French conso (...)

26The analysis of these planning conflicts shows that, in these contexts, UNESCO's responses are often denounced and considered too conciliatory toward developers and promoters. Opponents would like to see stronger reactions from the WHC. However, while local issues are at the root of these conflicts, UNESCO is an intergovernmental organisation, financed by its member states. The position of the states often responds to interests on a national or even an international scale, whereas these disputes between the actors in planning, heritage, and tourism mainly concern issues on a local scale. There is a contradiction of scales between local opponents who act on behalf of local interests, and state and government representatives who engage with the WHC as international stakeholders. Analysis of the Committee's decisions shows that expert recommendations are increasingly ignored in favour of geopolitical agreements between state representatives (Meskell et al. , 2015; Bertacchini et al. , 2015). If the Committee decides that a particular site is to be removed from the World Heritage List or added to the List of World Heritage in Danger, this resolution is often based on geopolitical considerations, rather than on genuine environmental, cultural, or heritage criteria, despite the recommendations of experts. In relation to the Upper Douro case, Meskell et al. (2015) quote Vinay Sheel Oberoi, then Indian ambassador to UNESCO, who criticized the 2012 ICOMOS recommendations, explaining that the pyramids would never have been built if ICOMOS and the World Heritage Committee had been there. In this context, the 2012 WHC session decided not to include the Alto Douro Wine Region on the List of World Heritage in Danger. While Portugal is a European nation with a long history of conquest, colonisation, and domination of part of the world, the main shareholder of EDP, builder of the Foz Tua dam, was then the China Three Gorges Corporation, which had bought out government shares in 2011 when the company was privatised during the economic crisis.7


27Secondly, it is essential to take into account the question of scale when analysing these power rivalries; while the issues at stake are often fundamentally local, they are embedded in questions of international relations. Thus, a classical geopolitical approach on an international scale is essential to complement a critical local geopolitical analysis. The process of registering a site on the World Heritage List certainly takes into account international geopolitical issues and corresponds to a real diplomatic negotiation. However, it is also a game of local actors, at the time of putting together the file and promoting it and above all when managing the site once it has been duly registered. Development and protection issues, which are sometimes contradictory, lead to real power struggles over the use of territory, where functional, heritage, landscape, and identity considerations are pitted against one another. World Heritage listing reinforces the conflict of use/development, appearing either as an additional constraint, as a source of significant economic interests and spin-offs, or as an additional element to be defended that is particularly mobilising because, by definition, it recognises an exceptional universal value for the territory.

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1 For the case study proposed in this paper, in the Upper Douro wine region, 11 interviews were conducted with local elected officials, representatives of associations opposed to the Foz Tua dam, and wine producers. The Portuguese regional and national press, as well as blogs and Facebook pages of opponents, were also valuable sources of information.

2 The expression has been used systematically by project actors since its launch, in particular by Iberdrola, the Spanish power producer in charge of building several dams on the River Tamega:

3 From the World Heritage website: Alto Douro Wine Region - UNESCO World Heritage Centre

4 The UNESCO World Heritage Committee mandates ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites), an independent non-governmental organisation, to appraise the nomination of new sites for the list or to oversee the management of listed sites.

5 "É uma decisão vergonhosa e que envergonha a própria Unesco. (...) Ficou provado que quem manda na Unesco são os governos, são eles que a financiam. (...) Os governos ficaram agora a saber que podem fazer o que quiserem com o Património Mundial. ”

6 "Um verdadeiro crime contra o património, o ambiente e o desenvolvimento local".

7 The Foz Tua dam, along with five others in the Douro river basin, was sold by EDP to a French consortium dominated by Engie in December 2019.

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Mark Bailoni, « Territorial development, tourism, and the protection of World Heritage Sites: issues of geopolitical conflict  », Via [En ligne], 19 | 2021, mis en ligne le 26 juillet 2021, consulté le 28 octobre 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Mark Bailoni

Geographer, Senior Lecturer
Université de Lorraine, LOTERR (EA 7304)

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Anne Mc Bryde

Chaire de recherche du Canada en patrimoine urbain

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Via Tourism Review est mis à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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