The question above is one that has been asked and answered many times over the years. We are repeating it now as we feel the South African Heritage community needs to continuously push the simple idea that we can help the country to achieve its development goals. This idea is expressed throughout the City of Johannesburg's Heritage Policy. Below are a few excerpts from this policy:
Cultural tourism is the fastest growing segment of the tourism industry worldwide, offering a valuable source of income and employment. For urban conservation, the value of tourism is both financial and as an impetus for awakening interest and attracting support. Tourism, managed with clear objectives, is a source of finance, both in the promotion of historic places and in encouraging and enabling conservation work.
The re-use of heritage buildings for tourist functions can ensure that historic structures are restored and given a living function. Heritage tourism should thus be welcomed as a means of enabling appreciation of heritage and its safeguarding and continuity for future generations. Heritage resources could however face the danger of being permanently lost or ruined if tourism is not managed sensitively. International experience shows that irreversible damage can be caused to historic fabric through the capitalisation of heritage for quick profits, heavy foot-traffic through sensitive areas, and hasty or insensitive restoration schemes. While reasonable accommodation should be made for the needs of visitors, the dignity of historic places must be upheld against interventions that may compromise or trivialise the significance of sites.
The interests of local communities including memories and values as well as material needs, is also of prime concern. To avoid raising false expectations, the economic benefits of heritage tourism for local communities should be placed in perspective. Internationally, heritage tourists tend to visit more places, stay longer and spend more money than other visitors. Such patterns have raised expectations that tourism can deliver economic benefits to historically disadvantaged areas. This has led to a proliferation of heritage tourism projects in South Africa, and particularly in Johannesburg. If tourists get off the buses and walk the streets of an area, it is argued, they are more likely to spend money that benefits local small business. Recent experience in Soweto, however, indicates that this is usually only applicable in areas that have a long tradition of tourism and offer a wide range of products and services from which tourists can choose.
Despite the successful establishment of a tourism route, in general only a relatively small number of economic activities result directly to the area. The more real economic benefit is through the overall development of the area as a result of renewed interest, confidence and investment. Heritage tourism projects have been identified in various places including Kliptown, Alexandra, Sophiatown and the Inner City, giving rise to a range of tourism proposals. If these projects are to be sustainable, they will need to be carefully co-ordinated and backed by a business feasibility approach.
Other Economic Benefits
Whereas cultural tourism is not appropriate for all heritage sites (or even most sites), caring for the historical environment offers a range of other economic benefits by encouraging investment, regenerating depressed neighbourhoods and creating jobs. Heritage is widely acknowledged to have an important potential as a catalyst for development. Johannesburg’s heritage resources should therefore be marshalled in support of the City’s long-term development goals. The challenge is not only to preserve historic resources, but also to use them as positive instruments for growth and change.
The overriding mission of the CoJ Heritage Conservation Unit will therefore be to harness and develop Johannesburg’s heritage assets in shaping the city’s cultural growth and development. Historic preservation is important in terms of a range of cultural, social and educational benefits. Preservation of the historic environment supports the social and cultural well-being of residents and contributes to civic pride. But equally, preservation should wherever appropriate also become a vehicle for achieving economic objectives such as growth and development, inner city revitalisation, small business development and provision of housing.
Viewed in purely economic terms, the benefits of historic preservation are considerable, offering an effective city strategy for addressing development challenges facing Johannesburg on a number of fronts. Preservation strategies can impact positively in such areas as job creation, housing provision, small business incubation and urban renewal.
Reuse is generally more economical than demolition and redevelopment. Building rehabilitation is labour-intensive, setting off higher economic multipliers for jobs and investment than new construction or manufacturing. The rehabilitation of historic structures creates a capital asset (the rehabilitated building), which will have an ongoing economic impact through long-term use. This typically leads to a knock-on effect in the area around the rehabilitated building, restoring overall social and business confidence, creating investment opportunities and facilitating sustainable regeneration.
Small business incubation is another major benefit, also important for job creation. Many SMMEs cannot afford to pay the high rents charged in new buildings and office parks. A rehabilitated historic building is often the answer for small businesses, offering quality accommodation at an affordable rent.
The historic environment supports viable communities by creating good quality environments where people prefer to live and work. Many historic properties are suitable for residential accommodation, often located close to jobs and amenities. For lower income communities, these buildings can offer quality of life combined with affordability and convenience. This growing market has begun to attract private investment to the city centre, as seen in the refurbishment of historical buildings to provide accommodation for lower to middle income earners.
For more affluent homeowners, refurbished heritage buildings near the city centre are also an increasingly attractive option, offering exclusive accommodation with the style and elegance of a bygone age. This promises to breathe new life into ailing buildings and boost Inner City regeneration. These conversions are however not without attendant risks. An increase in illegal conversions is of serious concern, with developers by-passing both the City’s Building Control and the Provincial Heritage Resources Authority. Inappropriate and shoddy alterations driven by quick profits can cause irreparable damage, detracting from the heritage value of the buildings. Unless controls are exercised, buildings will increasingly be placed at risk.