Passion and expertise drive Brent Lane to help develop and preserve World Heritage sites

The term “World Heritage site” conjures images of ancient ruins or historically significant artifacts in exotic or interesting locales—places people like to visit. In fact, 890 sites worldwide claim inclusion on the coveted World Heritage (WH) List developed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

But receiving the WH designation does not always bring the desired result, says Brent Lane, director of the Kenan Institute’s Carolina Center for Competitive Economies.

“Receiving designation as a World Heritage site brings with it an expectation of economic benefit for the communities surrounding sites but these expectations are not always realized,” he says.

Lane has been asked by the International Committee on Archaeological Heritage Management (ICAHM) to figure out why.

Balancing economic gain with historic preservation

World Heritage sites are cultural or natural heritage locations deemed by UNESCO to have “universal human value.” They receive official designation to encourage their protection and preservation. ICAHM is the organization that advises UNESCO on site preservation management.

Lane’s involvement with ICAHM grew from his personal interest in preservation, his volunteer work for archaeological support foundations, and his professional interests and expertise. Lane leads a center that helps communities leverage their unique assets to become more economically competitive and prosperous.

“I studied archaeology as an undergrad and have always had an interest in the field,” he says. “I became interested in figuring out how to capitalize on an attraction without destroying it.”

Having a site selected for World Heritage is a significant accomplishment; one which brings both the responsibility to protect the site and an opportunity to achieve economic benefits. “It is a global brand that a site can use as a point of pride or validation,” Lane says.

“The listing is commonly expected to increase tourism and spending. But increased tourism brings with it challenges for site preservation and there is no conclusive evidence that increased numbers of visitors have a positive economic impact on the host community.”

As an economic developer, the challenge and opportunity seemed clear, he says: “I suggested to ICAHM that perhaps funding could be available for preservation through economic development and that economic development could be a tool for protecting a site instead of destroying it. The idea is that when it becomes profitable to protect a site, conservation will take care of itself.”

Research informs development planning

In 2008, Lane proposed that ICAHM pursue a research project to evaluate the economic benefit of World Heritage sites. ICAHM jumped at the idea. They asked Lane to map out a global research strategy that could better describe the economic outcomes and opportunities for World Heritage-listed sites.

The goal was to design and implement practices to manage sites in developing countries in sustainable ways—growing the local economy while promoting site preservation.

“Just knowing the numbers of people that come to a site after it is listed is not meaningful,” says Lane. “They need to be asking questions. Are tourists spending money in the community or are they just trampling it? Are local artisans being utilized? Are tourists being educated? What is the overall benefit to the tourist, the site, and the community?”

With ambitious plans but limited budget, Lane turned to a rich resource—students attending UNC Kenan-Flagler who come from countries that are home to World Heritage sites.

He recruited six students who were traveling to locations near targeted sites to visit and question site managers. Students visited sites in China, Bolivia, Japan, Morocco, and New Zealand. Lane visited Jordan, Turkey, and the United Kingdom.

The result: a first step in creating a model for screening prospective sites and some key insights into how best to aid economic development, such as engaging higher-level local officials in the site designation process, asking ICAHM members to expedite access to local officials, and ensuring site managers are part of a collaborative planning process, not just subjects of research.

“Site managers and local officials were very interested in the research and results and eager to receive help with their development,” says Lane.

Funding sought for next phase of research

The next step is to dig deeper into the underlying economic conditions and opportunities through a cluster analysis of the surrounding communities. That will help site managers and researchers better understand the extent of local and regional economic activity generated as a result of site-related tourism. They can then develop a plan to expand the economic benefit.

That work, Lane says, requires funding. “It’s a very pregnant moment. We are reporting research outcomes to increasing networks of stakeholders and we’re developing specific proposals for economic development at a variety of sites. We hope for the proposals to translate into funds to help us move forward.”


Entrepreneurship • Economic Development • Global Competitiveness

Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise
Kenan-Flagler Business SchoolThe University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Campus Box 3440, Kenan Center, Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3440 USA
919/962-8201 •