Philadelphia became a World Heritage City earlier this month, the first U.S. city to reach this status. The city was awarded not so much a designation, but rather full membership in the Organization of World Heritage Cities, a coalition of more than 250 cities that hold UNESCO World Heritage sites.
“People love firsts and onlys, and right now, we’re the first and the only,” says Meryl Levitz, president of tourism booster Visit Philadelphia. “We might not always be the only, but this is a way to push Philadelphia forward.”
The UNESCO World Heritage list and by extension the Organization of World Heritage Cities have long had a European skew. Out of 1,031 places on the Heritage list, 44 percent are in Europe, and the continent is home to more than half the World Heritage Cities. While some scholars argue that the UNESCO designation privileges a value set that skews Eurocentrically, Eduardo Rojas, a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania, says that many nations have simply “been very reluctant to nominate places.” Zabeth Teelucksingh, executive director of Global Philadelphia, which works to promote the city internationally, adds that a lack of awareness and the complexity of the processes also affect who’s invited to join the club.
Global Philadelphia began to figure it out with a lean staff and resources that were equivalent to roughly $200,000 per year, says Board Chair John F. Smith III. “There was not a clear roadmap. We kind of had to make one up as we went along,” Smith says.
In 2012, it was just an idea. By 2013, with city government on board, Philadelphia successfully lobbied to become an observer city with the OWHC. The local partners fine-tuned their campaign over the last two years and analyzed the potential benefits for the city. This summer, a consulting firm reported that the Heritage status had the potential to bring between 60,000 and 100,000 new visitors from abroad, which could create $150 million in economic growth, as well as 400,000 to 800,000 more American visitors, or another $100 million to $200 million in new revenue.
The benefits beyond that are tougher to measure.
Tourism, services and hospitality, Peter Nijkamp writes in The Economics of Uniqueness: Investing in Historic City Cores and Cultural Heritage Assets for Sustainable Development, have metrics, but the “non-market benefits — through externalities that bring benefits to an appreciative society in the form of livability, local attraction of investments and creative minds, self-esteem, and open-mindedness of the local population” don’t always. So, if a local leader were to rhapsodize on the benefits being immeasurable, sure, he or she would be putting on the best face, but this would also be more than just a song.
Stephen P. Mullin, president of Econsult Solutions, which produced the impact report for Global Philadelphia, cautions that even their tourism-related estimates are reasonable, but not definite. With that, he notes, “These aren’t big increases. They’re significant, but they’re not big.” Philadelphia is currently the 15th most visited U.S. destination for international tourists, and if the numbers were to play out as forecasted, the city still wouldn’t crack the top 10.
World Heritage status attracts a particular type of tourist: the highly cultured traveler. It is of note that these tourists, according to Econsult, tend to spend more money than the average visitor. But a factor that would make gains in domestic tourism smaller is that many Americans feel familiar with the history they’d be going to see, Mullin says.
“We’re just not tied to that number right now,” Levitz says of domestic estimates in the Econsult report. Unexpected events, from the good to the tragic (she offers the recent events in Paris as an example), affect tourism too directly for her to say. “We’re tied to the possibility [and] encouraging more people to have a deeper experience with Philadelphia when they get here.” (To draw that deeper experience, Levitz is looking to tell the story of the region and show people that there’s more than the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall. She points to landmarks outside the downtown core and the Revolutionary War battlegrounds outside the city limits. There’s also the forthcoming Museum of the American Revolution.)
Looking further than tourism, Teelucksingh is proud of what this could mean for the city’s people, and also its corporations.
“It’s an opportunity for our companies and perhaps a business attraction element to say, we come from a World Heritage City,” she says.
San Antonio has also been listed as a World Heritage City because, as Manon Auffray de l‘Étang, a program administrator at the OWHC, clarifies, of the recent UNESCO World Heritage designation of the San Antonio Missions. UNESCO’s list of sites includes towns, architecture, neighborhoods, monuments, parks and complexes like the Missions, but the difference between just the designation and OWHC membership is the access to the latter’s network — another hard-to-measure advantage, but one that Philadelphia is seeking to capitalize on.
“As we look at the list of World Heritage cities, what we want to do is start to identify which cities we have crossover interests on,” says Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Alan Greenberger. “And they may vary. Some of the crossover interests may be purely cultural, but we think many of them will be economic development related.”
Greenberger explains that the city has not earmarked funds to market the new status, but rather has expanded a couple of jobs in light of it. He says the city will “really begin a process to grow those relationships, to grow those connections.” (A spokesperson for Mayor-elect Jim Kenney shared his support of the new status with the Philadelphia Inquirer.)
Swiss cultural economist Bruno Frey has noted that World Heritage status has its drawbacks. He names possible overcrowding (and subsequent damage) in historic districts, and spotlighting monuments for potential vandalism or destruction from terrorists, among other examples. Teelucksingh says right now they’re focusing on the positives, but will prepare for such dangers in the future.
Teelucksingh, speaking to the possibilities, can imagine the Philadelphia Orchestra incorporating the status into its marketing overseas. She sees stories folded into school curricula.
“The work is starting now. Because we are poised to position Philadelphia, and its actors, its players with this World Heritage opportunity,” she says. “And that means we have to work very hard to make sure that folks out there in the city understand what it means and start to use it to their benefit.”
The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Cassie Owens is a regular contributor to Next City. Her writing has also appeared at CNN.com, Philadelphia City Paper and other publications.