Interlinking Sustainable Development Goals: Involving local communities in tourism development and cultural heritage preservation

By Amy Plant

Amy represented Central Queensland University at the ECOSOC High-level Political Forum in New York.


Consideration should be given to engaging communities in a close and authentic manner during the development of localised economic or social initiatives. Many instances of economic development initiatives in regional or remote areas have resulted in unintentional negative social consequences for communities. An example is the development of tourism projects and products which can lead to unexpected threats to the preservation of local cultural heritage. Conversely, there are examples of innovative digital cultural heritage preservation projects which have resulted in the development of authentic tourism product. Thus in many instances, tourism product development and the preservation of cultural heritage are inextricably linked. The concepts of localised tourism development and safeguarding of cultural heritage are encompassed within the United Nations 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda. These are guiding principles which underpin many government and non-government development programmes. For development practitioners, strategies should be implemented to ensure local communities considered and engaged throughout the process of programme design and implementation. The community voice is a valuable asset in promoting inclusiveness in decision making, while ensuring appropriateness of localised initiatives so they may have positive impacts on society.

Policy Recommendations

  • Funding bodies and governments should consider collaborative departmental funding initiatives in recognition of the inextricably linked nature of tourism development and cultural heritage preservation.
  • A strong focus on cultural projects within the wider innovation agenda to foster for new approaches to the preservation of cultural heritage, and to see simultaneous tourism product outcomes realised in order to benefit communities.
  • Importance placed on consistent and relevant community engagement practice from the planning to implementation phase of tourism development initiatives, with particular regard to the preservation of cultural heritage.


United Nation’s Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (2030 Agenda) includes 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted in September, 2015. A High- Level Political Forum (HLPF) in July, 2016 will be the first global review and follow up, providing political leadership, guidance, and recommendations for the implementation of the 2030 Agenda (United Nations (UN), 2016). The theme of HLPF is “ensuring that no one is left behind” to warrant individuals and communities an equal opportunity to benefit from the realisation of the 17 SDGs (UN, 2016).

Under the 17 SDGs are 169 associated targets which are likened to a network in which individual targets can refer to multiple goals (Le Blanc, 2015). Interlinkages between the SDGs are of crucial importance in seeing the realisation of the Agenda as a whole (UN, 2015) as they build upon each other to strengthen efforts towards positive change. This paper will examine country experiences and the linkages between Goal 8, Target 8.9: “devise and implement policies to promote sustainable tourism that creates jobs and promotes local culture and products” and; Goal 11, Target 11.4: “strengthen efforts to protect and safeguard the world’s cultural and natural heritage” (UN, 2015).  Understanding country experiences can provide valuable insights into the relationship between community engagement and the challenges, existing programme structures, and potential for innovation across the intersection of tourism development and cultural heritage preservation. These insights are of great importance to policy makers in the development of new programmes and funding initiatives, particularly in regional and remote areas, where tourism is regarded as a sector for economic diversification. The unique characteristics, such as cultural heritage and natural environments of regional and remote areas are considered to be an opportunity for tourism development (Miller, van Megen & Buys, 2012) but must be managed to ensure flow on benefits to local people as there are instances of regional tourism development creating changes in society that are not always welcomed by local people (Doiron & Weissenberger, 2014). 

To ensure no one is left behind in the realisation of the SDGs, innovation and participation will be required: involving individuals and communities in the decision making process to create authentic solutions with social and economic benefits. Many countries have considered involving local stakeholders in the development process as being important in achieving long term sustainable development (Carlsson-Kanyama, Dreborg, Padovan, 2008, p. 34). In the development of initiatives for positive change, the opportunity for community participation early in programme development process stimulates a sense of community ownership and support of the programme (Barns & Schmitz, 2016). In the context of tourism development and safeguarding heritage, community involvement can create successful outcomes – while mitigating unwanted effects – and should be highly regarded in the development of policy and programmes to see the Sustainable Development Goal 8, Target 8.9 and Goal 11, Target 11.4 realised.

Challenges for Tourism Development and Safeguarding Cultural Heritage

The process of sustainable development is complex and often paradoxes arise between promotion of sustainable tourism and local culture and products (Goal 8, Target 8.9) while strengthening efforts to safeguard cultural heritage (Goal 11, Target 11.4). Tourism is seen as both an economic driver for regional areas, and a tool to protect cultural heritage (Nault & Stapelton, 2010). However, some tourism projects have been shown to have negative effects on regional and remote indigenous communities, including compromising tangible and intangible cultural heritage (Hunter, 2010; Rodzi et al., 2013; Dyer, Aberdeen & Schuler, 2003), which demonstrates the inextricably connected nature of tourism development and cultural heritage maintenance. In the development of cultural product for the tourism market culture may be exploited as a result of the commodification process, furthermore, risking the integrity of longstanding community value systems which can be superseded by a consumer value system (George, 2014 as cited in Rodzi et al., 2013, p. 416).  A case study of the small regional community in Taiwan explored problems between tourist representations of cultural artefact and cultural identity of the Rukai people, the local indigenous residents (Hunter, 2010, p. 335). The study suggests the resident’s representations of a particular artefact were subjective, however in some instances influenced by the tourism sector’s interest in them, pointing to the varying effects of the influence of tourism development in regional areas on cultural heritage.

Australian research by Dyer, Aberdeen and Schluer (2003) of the impact of tourism activities at the Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park on the Djabugay people, an indigenous community in North Queensland, found there were positive benefits to the community including the revival of culture and employment opportunities. However, there were some negative impacts on cultural heritage preservation. For example, the research found there were instances of misrepresentation of Djabugay culture. One instance included non-indigenous pressures to modify the preparation of traditional dances to fit with the short term nature of tourist itineraries, resulting in a misrepresentation of culture in order to satisfy the commercial nature of the tourism industry (Dyer et al., 2003, p. 90). Additionally, concerns were raised by Djabugay employees with regards to non-indigenous Park manager’s decisions over how Djabugay culture would be represented (Dyer et al., 2003, p. 90). This highlights a lack of community representation and participation in decision making regarding the showcasing of cultural heritage in the context of tourism product development.

The experiences of the Rukai people in Taiwan and Djabugay people in Australia demonstrate the multidimensional nature and varied scale in which tourism can impact cultural heritage. For governments and development practitioners devising policy for tourism opportunities in regional and remote areas, considering formal and relevant community engagement practice throughout the programming phases is of importance to identify and overcome the challenges associated with cultural heritage preservation. In achieving Sustainable Development Goal 8, Target 8.9, understanding the role of community engagement in the tourism development process is a means to strengthen the effort to simultaneously achieve Sustainable Development Goal 11, Target 11.4; safeguarding and preserving cultural heritage.

Working together: Policy Makers, Intermediaries and the Community

Contextualising the role of independent intermediaries, such as non-government organisations (NGOs), working between policy makers and communities play in the development and facilitation of sustainable tourism programmes to foster local job creation (Goal 8, Target 8.9) is valuable in understanding the importance of relevant and tailored community engagement practice. In fostering conditions for community inclusion and employment opportunities in tourism development initiatives, NGOs are well positioned to take on a leadership role due to their on the ground networks and close community relationships (Spooner & Dadich, 2010). This was found to be relevant in Nault and Stapleton’s (2010) community participation feasibility study of the development of ecotourism initiatives in remote western Mongolia. The initiatives were seen as a means of generating local employment opportunities. A local NGO’s ability to develop a deep understanding of the communities unique needs, customs, and interests through long-term on the ground engagement was considered beneficial in being able to encourage inclusive participation in the initiative. This close relationship and understanding was advantageous in being able to overcome the cultural differences of the programme’s structure and the cultural norms of the local community. Specifically, Western practices of participation and business development which differed from the ideals and culture of the local people. Highlighting the links between tourism development (Goal 8, Target 8.9) and safeguarding of cultural heritage (Goal 11, Target 11.4), the participatory tourism development initiative encouraged the local people to take protective measures to ensure the preservation of cultural artefacts which were at risk of vandalism and degradation. The study articulated the need for tourism development programs to be customised to local circumstances. Viable long term strategies required “close collaboration and sustained support from trusted community leaders and from knowledgeable and committed outside stakeholders” (Nault & Stapleton, 2010, p. 695). The NGO’s role as an actor in the development of participatory practice in tourism development was considered by Nault and Stapleton as a viable option to see long-term ecotourism integration in the community realised.

In contrast to the experience of the Djabugay people in Australia, where tourism development and lack of participation in decision making presented a challenge in preserving cultural heritage, the western Mongolian case study highlighted inclusive participatory approaches to tourism development can mobilise proactive community efforts to safeguard cultural heritage. For policy makers and development practitioners, understanding the nuanced community engagement approaches and roles of intermediaries in achieving Sustainable Development Goal 8, Target 8.9 and Goal 11, Target 11.4 is valuable for developing rigorous programmes that are appropriate and sensitive to the complex natures of communities.

A programme by an Australian NGO, Cooperative Research Centre for Remote Economic Participation (CRC-REP), to develop resilience in the Aboriginal tourism sector enabled a platform for number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander small-medium sized (SME) remote tourism operators to develop relevant principles for enterprise clusters. A participatory process allowed the businesses to review Western knowledge of cluster framework and “consider how these practices could be carried out according to Aboriginal ways” (Jacobsen, 2015). Cluster approaches towards the development of indigenous tourism enterprise in remote Australia is seen as beneficial in creating value chains to support the sustainability of the industry (Jacobsen & Tiyce, 2014). In contrast to the approach by the NGO highlighted in the western Mongolian case study, CRC-REP’s approach to tourism development was from an advocacy perspective, rather than a facilitation or collaborator perspective. The Programme and community engagement was designed to enable SME remote tourism operators to drive the process towards the sustainable development of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tourism in remote Australia. The result of the Programme was the development of a framework of enterprise clustering specifically for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tourism businesses in remote Australia. The role of the framework is to promote further cluster development to enable value chain creation and additionally provide recommendations for policy makers:

Implement policies to stimulate long-term tourism development according to the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tourism operators. Emphasis should focus on transitioning greater control to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people over their participation in tourism.
Provide programs that support the unique long-term needs of Aboriginal tourism clusters. (Jacobsen, 2016, p. 30).

The Programme promotes the unrealised potential of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander business knowledge as a means for community-driven sustainable tourism development. In context of achieving Sustainable Development Goal 8, Target 8.9 and Goal 11, Target 11.4 this approach places communities at the heart of tourism product development, allowing cultural heritage custodians autonomy and control over their culture’s preservation and showcasing for tourism markets.

Innovation and opportunity in Australian Indigenous Tourism Development

Innovation is woven through many of the SDGs and for regional areas, the capacity to innovate is linked to sustainable growth (OECD, 2011, p.3). Innovative digital platforms have been successfully used to preserve Australian Aboriginal cultural heritage (FORM, 2013; Weerianna Street Media, 2015) and have a dual purpose within the tourism sector. This highlights the interlinked nature of tourism development (Goal 8, Target 8.9) and safeguarding cultural heritage (Goal 11, Target 11.4) and the potential for digital innovation to be used in developing protective measures.  The Welcome to Country and One Road: Canning Stock Route Project (One Road) digital applications (apps) showcase Aboriginal cultural heritage items, such as oral histories and traditional owner welcoming messages against site specific locations. The Welcome to Country app developers work with multiple tribes and language groups to ensure content authenticity and to reflect the diversity of Aboriginal Australia. Groups are able to nominate to participate in the App, which means the knowledge custodians have power and control over the showcasing of their cultural heritage. Similarly, in the case of the One Road app, which was part of the larger Canning Stock Route Project, cultural heritage items were approved for public showcasing at an individual and group level ensuring control was maintained by the community (Arts Law Centre of Australia, 2016). Thus, both projects are exemplars for community involvement within innovative projects contributing to cultural heritage preservation and tourism development.

NGOs can act as a platform to assist the facilitation of these types of digital dual solutions in both cultural heritage maintenance (Goal 11, Target 11.4) and in the promotion of tourism (Goal 8, Target 8.9). Innovative digital projects call for a certain level of resources and collaboration between community members and digital practitioners. Social software engineers Newman, Ferrario, Simm, Forshaw, Friday, & Whittle (2015) who work within the digital field suggest participatory physical prototyping with communities are powerful ways of addressing complex problems. The early stages of innovation, which can include prototyping activities, are important in assessing an idea as organisations need to weigh up the potential costs and challenges of progressing an idea through the development process (Nicholas, Ledwith & Bessant, 2015). Innovation does not need to limited by resources (Halme & Korpela, 2014), however organisations with higher resource levels are at an advantage (Nicholas et al., 2015). Additionally, innovation is not an automatic process: “the availability of accumulated knowledge or technology does not guarantee that innovation will take place” (Bas and Guillo, 2015, p. 277). Innovation becomes a platform and process for community involvement in the development of initiatives to achieve the SDGs. Policy maker and development practitioner espousal of funding, resources, and championing cultural product development within national innovation agendas is critical in support of NGOs and communities to develop innovative digital projects that will be of both social and economic benefit.  


There is a complex set of challenges facing communities, policy makers, and intermediary stakeholders in realising Sustainable Development Goal 8, Target 8.9 and Goal 11, Target 11.4. However, innovation and leadership through intermediaries, such as NGOs, provide valuable opportunities for effective and meaningful collaborative efforts towards the realisation of the SDGs. For these types of projects to be realised, championing cultural and social innovation within national innovation agendas will be required by policy makers, and through the advocacy of NGOs. Relevant community engagement practices, and the valuable role of NGOs as intermediaries, should be highly regarded by policy makers in developing programmes for tourism development (Goal 8, Target 8.9) in regional and remote communities. The recognition of the inextricably linked nature of Goal 8, Target 8.9 and Goal 11, Target 11.4 should additionally be valued highly by policy makers - creating rigorous development policy that prioritises community involvement, strengthens the efforts to achieve SDGs simultaneously, and ensuring no one is left behind.


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