Conservation as a driver for development: the case of Vigan (Philippines)
Along with the nomination process of the Historic City of Vigan as a World Heritage site in 1999, the local government developed an ambitious conservation and management plan for the site. By implementing this long-term plan, Vigan has developed its cultural tourism potential, improved its governance systems, preserved the historic fabric, and provided opportunities for its citizens.
The plan was recognised by UNESCO for Best Practice in World Heritage site management in 2012.
About the Historic City of Vigan
Vigan is a city in the Philippines, on the west coast of Luzon island. The city is home to the World Heritage site Historic City of Vigan, inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1999 under criteria (ii) and (iv).
Founded in the 16th century, Vigan is an exceptionally intact and well-preserved example of a European trading town in East and South-East Asia. The architecture of the city reflects its historic roots and rich culture in both materials and design, fusing Asian building design and construction with European colonial architecture and planning. Vigan is unique for having preserved much of its Hispanic colonial character, particularly its grid street pattern and historic urban lay out. Its significance also lies on how the different architectural influences are blended to create a homogenous townscape.
Conservation as a tool for development: the case of Vigan
Only four years before the inscription of the Historic City of Vigan on the World Heritage List, the city was experiencing political instability, private armies and political violence, out-migration of businesses, and decay of the historic district. Traditional industries were in decline, the public market was destroyed by fire, and the economic resources were barely enough to pay the salaries of public officials.
In order to harness the potential of cultural heritage as a tool for development, the local government and stakeholders developed a clear vision and action plan based on their World Heritage nomination. The plan had four key objectives:
- Strengthen the sense of identity and pride of the citizens in their historic city – grow their confidence and knowledge.
- Embed the approach into long-term policy and management of the city to prevent short-term political changes from disrupting the momentum.
- Forge local and international linkages – learning from other historic cities and securing support for progressive changes from the Spanish government for the master planning process, as well as working with local universities to tap into extra resources and research capacity. These partnerships helped deliver where resources were limited.
- Develop Vigan as a tourism destination that enriches and conserves the people’s core values and traditions, as well as sustaining their livelihoods.
Based on the vision of heritage as a tool for development, the city developed an ambitious programme in different areas of action.
1. Legal, planning and management frameworks
Shortly after the site’s inscription on the World Heritage List, several legislative measures were carried out. These include:
- Creation of planning scheme taking into account World Heritage site boundaries and buffer zone and identifying allowable uses within the site.
- Establishment of local regulations and guidelines for interventions on historic buildings, new constructions and open spaces within the historic city.
- Creation of the multi-sectoral Vigan Conservation Council, which recommends, evaluates and approves development plans and policies related to the historic area, and the Technical Working Group, which implements the conservation guidelines and evaluates restoration and development plans for approval by Conservation Council.
- New traffic plan for the historic centre, which reconfigured traffic flows in the area and pedestrianised Crisdogo Street.
- Budget plan set aside 1% of the budget for arts, culture and tourism investment.
Within the city administration, the Vigan Heritage Management Office and Heritage Conservation Division were created to monitor the state of conservation of the site and manage town planning approvals. Furthermore, the City Public Safety and Disaster Risk Reduction Management Office was established to reduce and manage threats associated with the property.
More recently, the local government, in partnership with PRIMEX Corporation, has developed a Master Plan for Sustainable Urban Infrastructure Development in Metropolitan Vigan, which will provide a development blueprint for the wider city.
2. Knowledge and skills
The city invested in a programme of research and education on the city’s history, traditions, arts, culture, and industries.
Firstly, the municipality, in cooperation with the University of Santo Tomas, Center for Conservation of Cultural Property and the Environment in the Tropics, carried out a mapping of tangible and intangible heritage assets. This mapping exercise was recently revised and digitised, in consultation with locals, architects, academics, officials and city employees.
At the same time, an analysis of the tourism offer developed by the University of Santo Tomas pointed out the need for new products and experiences, and to find better ways to enable visitors to experience and understand the city’s heritage.
Additionally, the City of Vigan has recently purchased a 3D laser scanner to document the built environment and contribute to Disaster Risk Reduction.
Education and training
The City of Vigan has invested in education and training programmes for heritage management and traditional skills.
The educational offer is centred in the Vigan Conservation Complex, which includes a training centre, museum, library and more. The Escuela Taller provides training in traditional building crafts required to maintain, repair and restore historic buildings. New courses were created on culture-based governance, cultural events management and planning, and Disaster Risk Reduction and management in heritage sites. Traditional skills, such as loom-weaving and jar-making, were added to the curriculum in three high schools. Finally, the Department of Tourism provided additional training to the drivers of traditional horse-drawn carriages (kalesa) to increase their skills as touristic guides.
Left: Tour guide training. Right: Inauguration of new kiln. © City Government of Vigan
Several activities were carried out thanks to cooperation with international institutions. Most recently, Vigan under the UNESCO-Japan FIT Project aimed at revitalising local traditional industries as part of World Heritage narratives, trained local artisans on product development and produced promotional materials on local craft, and a children’s book on the history of Vigan In the Specialist dispatch project, developed thanks to the Japan Council of Local Authorities for International Relations, international expert Dr Masayoshi Okuyama shared his expertise in conservation with the City of Vigan.
A large number of publications have been developed to disseminate the history and heritage of the city. This includes brochures, e-books, films, newsletters, coffee table books, postage stamps, and children’s books. At the same time, in the frame of this programme, a website for local people and visitors was developed.
Amongst the publications, we can highlight:
- World heritage city of Vigan, Philippines: Heritage Homeowner’s Preservation Manual, developed in partnership with UNESCO and the University of Northern Philippines. The publication aims to educate and inform homeowners, architects, developers and more, about heritage conservation guidelines.
- Vigan Heritage Charter for Built Tangible Heritage and Intangible Heritage, developed in partnership with the University of Santo Tomas, Center for Conservation of Cultural Property and the Environment in the Tropics with inputs from local architects and academics.
3. Community involvement
Before the inscription of the Historic City of Vigan on the World Heritage List, public fora and stakeholder workshops were carried out to formulate the vision statement for the city and determine the cultural tourism and development strategies. After listing, the local government carried out community consultations on the legal measures, which had caused the opposition of some homeowners due to increasing restrictions on their properties.
In order to empower residents and enable their participation in the conservation programme, the Save Vigan Ancestral Homeowners Association Incorporated was created. At the same time, the Vigan Heritage Conservation Youth Council promotes youth involvement in conservation matters and organises the yearly Vigan Heritage Youth Congress.
Youth activities in the Historic City of Vigan © City Government of Vigan
In the business arena, stakeholder engagement is carried out through the Vigan Tourism Council. This institution joins together different stakeholders, including local businesses, religious authorities, academics, craft industries, infrastructure sectors and government.
4. Intangible heritage
The city has actively promoted intangible cultural heritage by protecting and transmitting traditional skills and knowledge, such as craftsmanship. Local culture and history are transmitted through storytelling, plays and zarzuelas.
Representation of Ang babae sa digmaan © City Government of Vigan
Moreover, cultural festivals are carried out throughout the year, including religious and laic festivities such as the Vigan Town Fiesta, Day of St Paul the Apostle, the Longganisa Festival and Semana Santa. The Viva Vigan Binatbatan Festival of the Arts includes parades, cultural events and traditional art performances, while the Repazzo de Vigan, held on World Heritage Cities Solidarity Day, celebrates the city’s history. Other festivals include the Raniag festival in October and Christmas celebrations at the end of the year, including a lantern and torch parade. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all events took place online during 2020.
Left: Raniag festival. Right: Christmas celebrations © City Government of Vigan
5. Physical interventions
At the time of listing, the priority on community needs included measures to provide clean water to villages, solid waste systems, focus on health and sanitation, and developing roads to villages to make them accessible for tourism and other economic activities.
Other interventions have focused on the enhancement of the historic character of the old city. Street signs in the historic quarter are now made from local clay, enhancing the local distinctiveness. Properties and public space were also restored, and new cobblestone paving was laid out in historic streets.
Left: Works in Plaza Burgos. Right: Restored ancestral building © City Government of Vigan
By harnessing the potential of culture to contribute to local development, Vigan has become a bustling city with a growing economy. Visitor numbers have climbed from 76,000 in 2009 to 335,000 in 2012. The poverty rate has fallen from 45.5% in 1995 to 9% in 2013. City finances rocketed to 292 million Pesos (up from 27 million in 1995) while health and education rates improved markedly.
The heritage-led regeneration strategy has enabled the city to invest in a range of other facilities for the people of the city, including two new public high schools and one elementary school; a new public market; a slaughterhouse; a new beach resort; internet access for many people across the city; recycling facilities for solid waste, paper and plastic; a TV network for the city; training programmes for more than 5,000 artisans; and a poverty relief programme.
Conservation challenges remain and the changing and economically thriving context of the city creates tensions with the uses of old properties and spaces, especially as some properties have not yet been restored and the increase in traffic has created new problems. Vigan was also recognized by UNESCO for Best Practice in World Heritage site management in 2012.
Vigan has been transformed through a process of understanding its heritage tourism potential, developing and implementing an action plan. The effects of the action plan and good governance have improved residents’ quality of life and livelihoods, while seriously considering the need for robust conservation of the historic fabric.
Source: City Government of Vigan, 2021; Sustainable Tourism Toolkit, UNESCO, 2015.
Contribution towards the implementation of the 2011 Recommendation on the Historic Urban Landscape
The project aims to contribute to the implementation of the Historic Urban Landscape approach by promoting urban heritage conservation, enhancing local residents’ quality of life and integrating spatial planning and conservation plans.
Historic Urban Landscape Tools
Civic engagement tools Knowledge and Planning tools Regulatory systems Financial tools
Contribution towards Sustainable Development
If fully implemented in accordance with the described plans, the initiative could contribute towards Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals.
Goal 1. End poverty in all its forms everywhere.
- Target 1.2: the initiative aims to reduce the number of men, women and children living in poverty through a culture-centred development policy.
Goal 4. Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.
- Target 4.4: the initiative aims to increase the number of youth and adults who have relevant skills, including technical and vocational skills, for employment, decent jobs and entrepreneurship, by providing training in cultural management and traditional industries.
- Target 4.7: the initiative aims to increase local residents’ knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development.
Goal 8. Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.
- Target 8.5: the initiative aimed to increase access to full and productive employment and decent work for all.
Goal 11. Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable
- Target 11.1: the initiative aims to increase access for all to adequate, safe and affordable housing and basic services
- Target 11.4: The initiative aims to protect and safeguard the world’s cultural heritage..
- Target 11.b: the initiative includes integrated policies and plans towards increasing resilience to disasters and developing holistic disaster risk management at the city level.
Goal 17. Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development
- Target 17.17: the initiative promotes local, national and international public, public-private and civil society partnerships, building on the experience and resourcing strategies of partnerships.
Note: the described potential impacts of the projects are only indicative and based on submitted and available information. UNESCO does not endorse the specific initiatives nor ratifies their positive impact.
To learn more
Visit the UNESCO World Heritage website for details on their Best Practice recognition.
Read The Cultural Mapping Project of the Heritage City of Vigan: Towards building a Framework for Heritage Conservation and Sustainable Development, by Associate Professor Eric Babar Zerrudo.
Visit the website of the City of Vigan.
- Read the full submission by the City Government of Vigan.
City of Vigan
- Address: Vigan City Hall, Brgy I, Burgos Street corner Quezon Avenue, Vigan City
- Telephone: (077) 722-8771 – 75 local 17, 101
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Website: http://www.vigancity.gov.ph/
- Connect with the City of Vigan and Mayor Carlo Medina on Facebook
© UNESCO, 2021. Project team: Jyoti Hosagrahar, Alba Zamarbide, Carlota Marijuán Rodríguez, Moe Chiba
Image credits: © City Government of Vigan unless otherwise noted.
Note: The cases shared in this platform address heritage protection practices in World Heritage sites and beyond. Items being showcased in this website do not entail any type of recognition or inclusion in the World Heritage list or any of its thematic programmes. The practices shared are not assessed in any way by the World Heritage Centre or presented here as model practices nor do they represent complete solutions to heritage management problems. The views expressed by experts and site managers are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the World Heritage Centre. The practices and views shared here are included as a way to provide insights and expand the dialogue on heritage conservation with a view to further urban heritage management practice in general.