World Heritage
World Heritage

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World Heritage

2.5.3 Case study: World Heritage and the economy in Tarragona, Spain

Tarragona, south of Barcelona, has undergone a period of regeneration and repositioning thanks to World Heritage listing (UNESCO, 2008c). The most significant urban centre in Roman Iberia, it shows many layers of occupation through to the present, with modern excavations revealing the most important Roman urban town planning and remains in Spain (Figure 10). The excavated buildings, in varying states of repair and accessibility, have been developed as spectacular cultural sites, now attracting large numbers of visitors. Restoration is being undertaken as appropriate, extending in time from the pre-Roman to a substantial medieval legacy, including the cathedral and other ancient buildings overlooking the main World Heritage site. Much of the old city is surrounded by a wall, often incorporating later buildings, and forming part of a heritage walk where the wall can be readily and safely accessed. A range of a interpretations, including a remarkable model housed in a restored medieval building near the cathedral, show the extent of the Roman city, its harbour, shipyards and workshops, and its leisure facilities including circus, chariot-racing track and other features. Excavations at a variety of stages and locations can also be observed by visitors, while an older and very fine classical museum packed with the discoveries of earlier excavations has been revitalised (Museu d’Història de Tarragona, 2008; Museu Nacional Arquelògic de Tarragona, 2008).

Figure 10  Aqueduct in Tarragona World Heritage site. Photographed by Schütze/Rodemann. Photo: © Bildarchiv Monheim GmbH/Alamy.

Tarragona, already a major tourist destination from the surrounding costas and resorts, has enthusiastically re-invented itself as a cultural destination. Higher education has expanded, leading to the growth of the local university, Universitat Rovira i Virgili, which increasingly attracts large numbers of international students and conferences. The Catalonian government and the Tarragona provincial authorities together with scholars have played a major role in these initiatives. The reaction of locals, I can testify, is generally favourable, since the spin-offs in new kinds of tourism are self-evident. However regeneration has probably brought mixed benefits to some locals and the immigrant community, since heritage projects absorb funds that might otherwise be deployed on housing and other social facilities (a common problem elsewhere, and in Tarragona’s case being partially addressed by its structure plan described briefly below). Nonetheless World Heritage status has been a springboard for urban regeneration, perhaps not on the scale of Barcelona to the north, but certainly impressive.

One of the more ambitious schemes arising is the proposal to restore the historical seafront, connecting it again to much of the archaeological ensemble that constitutes the World Heritage site. Beyond the Roman and medieval remains, visible and invisible, later elements have left their mark on Tarragona: extensive urban development, the port, the railway and industrial areas. While always of some importance to the local economy, large-scale industrialisation did not occur until the 1960s and 1970s with the development of a petrochemical complex linked to the port, which has become one of the main cargo-handling ports in the Mediterranean. Since tourism is the other major industry in Tarragona and its region, it is obvious that a tricky balance needs to be maintained between these two key sectors of the economy. Local planners describe Tarragona as being a city out of balance with itself, so the strategic objectives aim to rectify this using heritage as one of the main platforms. According to the strategic objectives the historical and archaeological heritage, rather than being seen in isolation, should be linked to cultural landscapes and natural heritage in and beyond the city, creating an urban inter-city archaeological route that links the different monuments and sites in a cohesive way. Heritage protection can be enhanced by a detailed inventory identifying much that remains hidden under layers of occupation since Roman times, as well as by classification of monuments by age, accessibility and state of repair, and the histories of excavations and finds. All of this presents enormous challenges when the structure plan proposes the recovery of the seafront by either covering or re-routing the railway and removing other buildings which all act as barriers between parts of the city and the coast.

There is no question that World Heritage status is contributing to a major repositioning of tourism in Tarragona. As everywhere in Catalonia local and national pride is uppermost, with a strong emphasis on the links to intangible heritage, notably language and culture; in Tarragona this finds expression in a series of annual festivals famous throughout Spain and beyond.

Reflecting on the case study

Tarragona is a good example of World Heritage driving both the repositioning of an urban regional economy and the development of cultural-educational tourism. Unlike other heritage cities such as Liverpool, Glasgow and Belfast, Tarragona itself is a relatively new industrial centre, but the same challenges of balancing different strategic objectives are evident. At the same time it has substantial advantages in its location close to major tourist areas, also dating from the mid-twentieth century, and also near Barcelona, which began its revitalisation earlier and provided something of a model for Tarragona. Like Edinburgh and Bath, it has many of the advantages of a smaller city, the cohesiveness of its archaeological and historic sites in a spectacular location, plus the potential to link these to other economic and cultural developments. At the time of writing a useful start has been made and the strategic plan promises well for the future. As in the examples of New Lanark, Bath and Edinburgh, local, regional and national politics have played a key role both in gaining World Heritage status and in the exploitation of that cachet for the future development of the economy.


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