The impact of COVID-19 on Visitor Centres in UNESCO Designated Sites in Europe

A report on the subject prepared by the Drag de Hateg association and the University of Bucharest, with the support of the UNESCO Regional Bureau for Science and Culture in Europe, sheds light on the consequences of the pandemic. The document presents the restrictions on the activities and management of visitor centres for UNESCO designated sites in the region, and highlights the measures taken by the centres in response to the challenge.

The COVID-19 pandemic is the most important global health crisis of our time. Whilst no one is immune to the crisis, venue-based sectors are amongst the most affected by the sanitary emergency and the subsequent restrictions imposed. We have been witnessing unprecedented closures of heritage sites, museums and other cultural institutions as well as the suspending of social, cultural, and recreational activities.

The pandemic tested everything that institutions within these sectors knew about themselves and their external contexts. It revealed their strengths and weaknesses, forcing them to review priorities with regard to their roles, functions, activities and also their sustainability. This also applies to visitor centres in UNESCO designated sites.

In order to better understand the extent and consequences of the pandemic’s impact on such centres, and to collect insights on coping strategies and recovery, the UNESCO Regional Bureau for Science commissioned the Hațeg Country UNESCO Global Geopark and the University of Bucharest to carry out a survey to collect and analyse the preliminary data on the subject.

The survey addressed the personnel from visitor centres in UNESCO designated sites within the region, such as World Heritage sites, Biosphere Reserves and Global Geoparks. It was conducted through an online questionnaire which investigated the operation and activities of such Centres during the pandemic, focusing on the period from February 2020 to February 2021.

This survey is part of the intersectoral activities on visitor centres in UNESCO designated sites launched by the UNESCO Regional Bureau in 2018, as part of the work plan supported by the annual contribution of Italy to the office. Outcomes of this survey may pave the way to further research to map and analyse specific practices developed by the centres, as means of sustainability in a post-COVID world.

The survey is also intended to complement UNESCO’s overall efforts to assess the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on society.

NOTE: A “Visitor Centre” within the present framework refers to any kind of organised service with front-desk activities. The primary purpose of which is to welcome and orient visitors (including both tourists and local communities), to facilitate the presentation, interpretation and/or visit to UNESCO designated sites. This concept includes a broad range of different structures, sometimes carrying different names, such as “interpretation centre”, “information centre”, “house”, "World Heritage site centre”, etc.

Key findings of the survey presented in the report confirmed that the pandemic heavily affected the identity, management and activities of the centres in UNESCO designated sites in Europe.

Among the 42 analysed centres, 9 were completely closed, a further 31 were partially closed during the period from February 2020 to February 2021. Visitor numbers in 2020 decreased by about 58% in comparison to the previous year. The centres took preventive sanitary measures including extraordinary sanitation, social distancing or limiting the number of visitors. In some cases, additional measures were taken complementing those imposed by local authorities.

Regular services and events organized by the centres were affected in different ways. Whilst most of the centres tried to continue their usual activities, reducing their volume and frequency according to the circumstances, other centres developed new events and services created especially for the pandemic situation.

The development of digital activities emerged as a leitmotif for most of the responding centres, accompanied by an increase in outdoor activities. In general, despite the difficulties, centres were able to adapt their businesses in innovative ways to cater for their target groups, including those in remote.

The survey suggested that the most used digital means during the pandemic were those which the centres were already familiar with, such as social media campaigns, whilst technologies not previously adopted (and more expensive) like Virtual Reality were less used. Virtual tours, involving multiple information and communication technologies, also appeared to be a popular means to attract visitors or reach out to them. (See Figure 1)

Figure 1 - The digital tools and contents that the investigated centres relied on to cope with problems encountered during the pandemic

The centres were not alone in facing the pandemic. In many cases, local and central authorities provided financial support, making regular and exceptional costs easier to bear. (See Figure 2) As the revenue of the centres generated by ticket and souvenir selling dropped significantly due to the sanitary situation and associated restrictions, governments’ subsidies were crucial for the viability of such centres in face of the pandemic.

The main strengths of the centres in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic were staff competencies and commitment, paired with the communication and digital offer. Thus, it becomes clear that the future strategy of the centres in facing emergencies should focus more on human capital and on developing new skills related to the digital area.

Figure 2 - Social entities from which the investigated centres received financial support