After the property was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1997, progress has been made in the conservation work, particularly through the establishment of competent management authority (Management Committee was established in 2002 and a Cultural Heritage Protection Bureau was established in 2005).
However, the state of conservation of the property is of concern in the following aspects:
a) The property includes three compoents: Lijiang Dayan Old Town, Baisha quarter, 8 kilometres to the north of Lijiang and Shuhe Town, a small urban settlement 4 kilometres north-west of Lijiang which used to be an educational and craft centre. At the time of World Heritage inscription, a three-level protection zone concept (derived from Lijiang “Historical and Cultural Importance City Master Plan” adopted in 1994) was used to define the core and buffer zones for a total area of 3.8 square kilometres in the old town of Dayan. In the process of elaborating a comprehensive Management Plan for Lijiang Old Town, the relevant authorities attempted to reduce the core area and buffer zone of Dayan Old Town in order to allow the development of tourism-related projects at other sites of the property. There is no clear demarcation of boundary or buffer zones for Baisha and Shuhe.
b) The increasingly common practice of selling development and management rights of heritage sites to commercial companies has also been noted with growing concern. This includes the development of Shuhe town which has been carried out with weak enforcement and monitoring of conservation regulations. In addition, several tourism-related facilities, real estate development and/or commercial shops have been constructed around the property or even in the buffer zones of Dayan Town. For instance, Nanmen District close to Dayan Old Town was built in 2004 and construction of Chama (Tea and Horse) Tourist Centre at Shuhe began in 2003. Another project entitled “Lijiang Ancient Town World Heritage Forum Center (being proposed)” has been submitted by China’s State Administration of Culture Heritage to the World Heritage Centre and ICOMOS for review. The proposed project is located in the southern part of the Dayan Old Town which is in the buffer zone. ICOMOS is of the view that the general function of the Centre is unclear. It is also not clear how this proposed project could contribute to reducing the over-concentration of tourist-related activities within the core area of Dayan Town. The use of traditional building materials in the proposed project has not been mentioned. ICOMOS suggests that the project should be carefully designed to be in harmony with the townscape of Lijiang.
In brief, the property is now surrounded by some commercial projects which are intended to “enhance” the beauty of the old town but actually damage the property. For instance, the water system in Shuhe has been deteriorating since the introduction of the tourism development project. Meanwhile, the surrounding environment of the property has been compromised. In this respect, tourism development projects and rapid commercialisation at the property may have negative impact on the social structure, ethnic Naxi culture and heritage values.
The management authorities of the property have been mindful of the significance of safeguarding both the intangible and the tangible heritage of the property, and have undertaken measures accordingly. A percentage of tourism revenues has been re-invested in both heritage and community projects in the Dayan Old Town, which have resulted in improvements in the townscape, infrastructure and public services. Museums illustrating local ways of life have contributed to the interpretation of the site. A Village Incentive Fund has been established to provide modest loans and grants to local homeowners in order to maintain their houses in accordance with traditional building practices.
However, the cumulative small-scale conservation attempts have been outweighed by the macro-level commercialisation due to the site’s popularity as a tourism destination for both domestic and international visitors. Commercial interests have driven measures to facilitate large numbers of tourists, compromising the authentic heritage values which attracted visitors to the property in the first place. In physical terms, architectural and urban authenticity has been affected by widespread rebuilding and development, use of modern building materials and replication of traditional-style architecture, which have been carried out instead of maintaining the historic fabric. In social terms, the property has seen displacement of local populations and the replacement of traditional occupations by tourism-related businesses run by non-local residents. Renewed attention to visitor management and regulation of associated investments in infrastructure and facilities is required.
In the absence of an integrated management strategy balancing development and conservation, comprehensive guidelines and an enforceable monitoring mechanism ensuring the sustainable conservation of the site’s heritage values, these changes pose growing challenges to the historic heritage community of Lijiang, which remains aware and committed to safeguarding their traditional tangible and intangible heritage.
The World Heritage Centre and ICOMOS consider that the scale of the threats to the townscape of Lijang and its surrounding landscape from rebuilding, new tourism-related structures, other new buildings and services requires the Management Plan for Lijang to be integrated into a wider Master Plan for the area, which addresses tourism services, infrastructural development, housing etc. in a holistic way and respects the integrity of the three core areas of the property.