The ongoing excavation of the 2300-year old Avenue of Sphinxes in Luxor, Egypt is an instructive example of what can go wrong when short-term tourism interests set the agenda for archaeology. Since the 5th century CE, the 2.7 km-long processional route connecting the two ancient temples in Luxor fell into disuse. It was later buried under the silt and today most parts of this route run beneath the thickly populated old city. Since the ‘Pharonic heritage' is a major attraction for the international tourist circuit and brings in a lot of revenue, Egyptian authorities have gone all out to exploit it, unmindful of the consequences. Sound archaeological principles have been sacrificed. Bulldozers tore down many later-period — but no less valuable — heritage structures and razed the old bazaar, displacing hundreds of people. As the larger plans reveal, the emphasis is on building more five-star hotels, IMAX-theatres, golf courses, and a monorail to take tourists to various historical sites. The vibrant old city of Luxor, one of the wonders of the ancient world, is at risk of being converted into a stage-managed theme park catering to a floating population of tourists.
India has its own share of misplaced projects such as the attempted eviction of vendors from the bazaar near the Virupaksha temple in Hampi. Equally worrisome are ill-conceived ventures such as the proposed theme parks in Hampi or the demolition of modern buildings in Jaipur city to put up structures that look like old ones. Archaeology is a serious scientific pursuit and cannot be treated as Lego blocks to build a make-believe Disney world. It may have social obligations to meet, but that is no excuse to compel it to serve casual visitors or compromise its research agenda. When historical sites are purged of the related associations, isolated from the immediate context, and alienated from the local communities, their archaeological future is likely to be jeopardised. It is a disservice to the serious tourist who travels in order to perceive the difference and looks forward to an enriching cultural experience. Policymakers must heed the call of the World Tourism Organisation, a specialised agency of the United Nations, to pay more attention to the social and cultural dimensions of tourism. There is no dearth of tools to evaluate the impact, measure the capacity of the local community to bear it, and find the ‘limits for acceptable change.' What is required is a commitment to an integrated approach that abides by the rules, disciplines, and norms of an exciting field of knowledge, accommodates the needs of the people around the heritage sites, and harvests the economic benefits of tourism responsibly.