In less than a week, delegates from the world’s most iconic WORLD HERITAGE CITIES/SITES will have come to Kraków for the 15th OWHC World Congress. The world’s cultures will meet to exchange ideas and share knowledge on a wide range of practical issues linked to cultural heritage (management) and global tourism.

Global heritage know-how meeting in Kraków

OWHC’s World Congress is organised every two years, in different parts of the world. Before Kraków (2-5 June 2019) and Gyeongju (2017), the past editions of the OWHC World Congress were organised in Arequipa in Peru (2015), Oaxaca in Mexico (2013), Sintra in Portugal (2011), Quito in Ecuador (2009), Kazan in Russia (2007), Cusco in Peru (2005), Rhodes in Greece (2003) ), Puebla in Mexico (2001), Santiago de Compostela in Spain (1999), Évora in Portugal (1997), Bergen in Norway (1995), Fez in Morocco (1993) and finally, the very first one in Québec, Canada (1991).

It is the first time, however, a Central European city has won the bid to host this global event. During his last visit to Poland, Denis Ricard, Secretary General of the Organization of World Heritage Cities explained the rationale behind Kraków’s winning bid (to become the host city):

“In 1978, for the first time, two cities were inscribed on the World Heritage List. They were the two first on the world scale, and one of those two cities was, of course, Kraków. The other one was Quito in Ecuador. The value of heritage in this city has been recognised before it has been recognised in so many other parts of the world, because now there are over 300 World Heritage Cities but the two first ones, Kraków was one of the two first ones. Kraków, in a sense, was a pioneer, and it is not surprising when you realise the value of the heritage”Denis Ricard (OWHC)

Looking to the past to anticipate the future

For Kraków, organising the third major international congress in a row (UNESCO, UCCN and now 15th OWHC World Congress) is not only a question of prestige, continuity or fostering international partnerships. Long before it has even started, this year’s Congress is already seen by many as a catalyst of important processes, some of which are local in nature (e.g. effective cooperation between the many cultural institutions within the city and their ability to unite around strategic goals and development visions; integrating the city’s many communication efforts and platforms; reaching out to important new audiences) and some have much wider implications (e.g. the city’s ability to implement a sustainable, long-term development vision, create innovative tools to promote long-term growth, attract important new stakeholders representing great many different industries, and manage a great variety of risks attached, including those linked to cultural heritage and tourism).

World Heritage Cities and their unique challenges

After eight visits to Poland, one of the many things that Denis Ricard, OWHC’s Secretary General found rather surprising was the number of tourists walking the streets of Kraków as early as the beginning of April, long before the high season. When I asked him about the potential risks and threats that global capitals of culture are facing today (other than the widely publicised experiences of Dubrovnik, Barcelona or Venice), his response was especially thought-provoking:

With about 13,5 million tourists visiting Kraków in a single year (and the number just keeps growing!), overtourism may one day become a challenge for Kraków, however, one can risk a statement that it is a comparatively remote prospect, for a variety of reasons. Despite minor hiccups, the city is still seeing tourists as a blessing and a much-welcome testimony to a long-standing tradition of hospitality, rather than a nuisance.

“Genius loci” Describing the indescribable

If I were to point to a single quality that makes Kraków stand out (not only in Poland but also internationally), it would probably be the city’s uncanny ability to balance between the usual advantages of a large, vibrant centre of culture and business activity, while all this time being able to sustain a truly intimate character of a city where everything is within walking distance. There’s always something new, somewhere to go to, see, visit, enjoy or recommend to others.

If storytelling, communication and development strategies are among your passions, this city still has a fantastic potential – a lot of “undiscovered” sites and locations, with fascinating stories of their own. And if you are someone who values peace and quiet above all, but simply cannot give up living in the heart of the city (not a contradiction in terms!), this might just be your perfect city. The sheer diversity and proximity of greenery, national parks, protected areas and water reservoirs in and around Kraków is a real treat, especially if you like hiking or cycling.

A question of identity

At a time when globalisation, commercialisation and, standardisation are on everyone’s lips as exert a huge impact on individuals and cultures worldwide – even those whose roots are millennia old – the question of identity remains one of great importance. Before it becomes all too hectic to enjoy in-depth, quality reading, there’s one recommendation I’d like to leave you with at the end of this article. It delves a little deeper into the question of Central Europe’s cultural identity. It has recently been published in Herito (a cultural heritage quarterly) and you’ll find it here!