Mayors and representatives of 70 historic cities around the world met with tourism officials and conservation professionals from September 17 to 20, 1997, in Evora, Portugal, for the Fourth International Symposium of the Organization of World Heritage Cities (OWHC). Organized by OWHC, the city of Evora, and the Getty Conservation Institute, the symposium, entitled "Tourism and World Heritage Cities: Challenges and Opportunities," was designed to foster alliances between cities, the conservation community, and the tourism industry.
An international nonprofit and nongovernmental organization, OWHC is made up of 134 cities included on the UNESCO World Heritage list. The organization was founded in 1993 to assist member cities to adapt and improve management methods in relation to the specific requirements of having a site inscribed on the World Heritage list. Mayors of World Heritage cities share with the mayors of cities around the world a mandate to improve the quality of life, provide social services, and maintain adequate infrastructure. But the management of historic cities presents greater challenges to authorities by also demanding—often in the face of large numbers of visitors that create as many problems as opportunities—the careful custodianship of those elements that have given the cities their cultural significance.
The presentations made during the four days of the Evora symposium were rich and varied. Several mayors of World Heritage cities who addressed the 500 participants emphasized that historic cities need a sustainable future and thus must not ignore other types of development to pursue the revenue produced by tourism.
Tourism, one of the largest industries in the world, has often been seen as the means to revitalize historic cities. However, when operating in a historic urban center, tourism must be managed, controlled, and guided by city administrators. Economists who addressed the conference suggested that as users of the cultural resources, visitors to historic cities and tourism enterprises should contribute to the preservation of a city's physical fabric and cultural traditions. All speakers emphasized comprehensive, citywide planning as an essential tool to identify and realize the opportunities presented by tourism and to mitigate the problems it can create.
While in the past, governmental authorities, conservation professionals, and tourism agents have often been positioned as antagonists, the discussions held during the symposium focused on the need for collaboration among all parties and on the common advantages that can derive from such efforts.
Speakers also mentioned that while the leadership of tourism initiatives should involve the local administration, the development and management of tourism projects are best undertaken by the private sector. Partnerships between local authorities, international agencies, and the private sector are thought to hold the key to sustainable tourism in historic cities.