Green grass covers a peak of a mountain with ancient stone structures. Clouds float behind it.

Machu Picchu, Viault. Image licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The COVID-19 pandemic brought travel and tourism to a halt around the world. As some countries begin to reopen, many are still dealing not only with continued spread of the disease, but the loss of livelihood for millions who depend on tourism to cultural heritage sites.

As part of a special pandemic edition of Conservation Perspectives, Susan Macdonald, head of the Getty Conservation Institute’s Buildings and Sites department, and Jeffrey Levin, editor of the publication talked to three cultural heritage professionals in February about how the pandemic affected ongoing conservation work, and how the crisis may shape future approaches to tourism and protection of sites. This is an excerpt of the full interview, which can be read here.

Head and shoulders portraits of three men

Left to right: José M. Bastante, Laurence Loh, Jonathan Truillet

José M. Bastante is an archaeologist and the director of the National Archaeological Park of Machupicchu in Peru.

Laurence Loh is an architectural conservator in Malaysia, teaches heritage conservation management at the University of Hong Kong, and is a director of Think City, a Malaysian agency that focuses on crafting solutions in sustainable urbanism.

Jonathan Truillet is a conservator and deputy director for the conservation and restoration of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.

Jeffrey Levin: The pandemic has affected all of us in a variety of ways—and certainly affected the conservation of built heritage. You three work in different kinds of places, but they all are World Heritage Sites. Can each of you talk about how the pandemic has affected your site and your work?

Laurence Loh: Before the pandemic, George Town (the capital of the Malaysian state of Penang) was very vibrant because of the tourism industry, but as soon as the government announced the first lockdown, everything stopped. The whole conversation in the tourism industry was about survival. Many hotels have closed or cut their staff, and some owners have taken the opportunity to redesign their hotels. All the small industries, the trades, have closed.

José Bastante: The Historic Sanctuary or Archaeological Park of Machupicchu is not just the famous Inca city but an area that encompasses more than thirty-seven thousand hectares. Within this area there are more than sixty archaeological sites that we have to maintain and conserve whether they get tourism or not. Dealing with the pandemic has been difficult for us. We’re trying to make sure that the workers of Machupicchu keep their jobs because we need all of them—professionals in architecture, archaeology, sociology, anthropology, history, and geology, security staff, and conservation and maintenance workers.

Cathedral stands with scaffolding and exposed wood following a fire

Notre Dame de Paris Cathedral after the fire, Florian Pépellin. Image licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International license  (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Levin: Jonathan, you’re working to restore a prominent monument from damage caused by a disastrous fire. I’d imagine the pandemic has added to the complications you face.

Jonathan Truillet: Work on the cathedral, underway since 2019, actually has had to deal with two important problems. The first is the risk linked to contamination generated by the fire due to the lead roof. The second is the risk of the pandemic, which has caused more than seventy thousand deaths in France. Both problems have led to delays. We have to restore the cathedral in time to reopen the building in 2024, and the risk posed by lead contamination caused a three-week shutdown in August 2019. The pandemic has been a new source of delay. For example, during the first lockdown in France in spring 2020, work stopped for almost two months.

Susan Macdonald: José, how did you at your site initially respond to COVID?

Bastante: The day after January 30, 2020, when the World Health Organization issued a statement regarding COVID-19, we gave out masks, gloves, and gel alcohol to those workers in direct contact with tourists. At the time, we didn’t have a single case in Peru. We didn’t close our borders, and the lockdown didn’t come until March 15, but because we took these measures early on, none of the workers at the National Park of Machupicchu were infected. That shows that social distancing, wearing a mask, applying alcohol, and washing hands works.

Macdonald: Jonathan, did you have to change any other protocols on-site about the way craftspeople were working there?

Truillet: Because the cathedral is not a very big place, it is very difficult to create distance between two workers. However, because of the lead, all workers are obliged to wear a mask anyway—and the mask can protect people from the pandemic.

Street view of a row of homes. One is red brick with ornate multi-colored decoration.

Row of homes in Georgetown, Malaysia, McKay Savage from London, UK. Image licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Macdonald: Laurence, with the pandemic, did the government provide any financial support specifically related to conservation or management of heritage sites?

Loh: Not at all. In fact, the only government project that we were still running had to stop because the funds ran out. Although the project had negotiated a budget for the next three years, we were informed that the funding was not a priority. We’d been working on a fort site for the last three years, and we’d reached quite a critical point, but we had to stop because there was no budget. They just pulled the plug.

Truillet: The restoration of Notre Dame is financed by private money only. Because Notre Dame is an iconic monument—not only in France but also in Europe and all around the world—the fire generated a worldwide emotional response. We have 340,000 donors and have received 840 million euros in donations. Despite the pandemic and the economic crisis, none of the donors have canceled their gifts. On the contrary, Notre Dame always attracts new donors. Which is good news because we have a lot of work to do.

Levin: Has the pandemic provided any opportunity to do something that might not have been possible previously?

Loh: We had been working at the fort I mentioned, and we brought in a master mason from Rome. He had trained a team of workers over two or three years and then, all of a sudden, the project came to a halt. So I said to him, “You’re so good at doing different finishes, why don’t we just start manufacturing materials for other places?” Within the last month, we’ve started a pilot industry where he’s creating tiles and floor finishes we can use in almost any project. I’ve really wanted to create our own crafts with the criteria that we use all local materials, preferably from within a hundred-mile radius, manufacture everything on-site, and try to see whether there’s a market for it—which I think there will be. It’s almost like reviving the old industry. We are trying to connect with technical colleges and the vocational groups in different parts of the country, and build up this whole ecosystem again. If we’re successful, it’s because the pandemic forced us into this situation.

Bastante: Because of the pandemic, we have people doing some conservation and maintenance work in places within the archaeological park where normally we couldn’t because there were hundreds and hundreds of tourists. At the main site, even nature has recovered. We’ve even seen bears coming into Machupicchu once a week, so that means that we’re doing something good—and the only thing we’re doing is not having tourists. The Inca city of Machupicchu was not built to have more than four hundred people living there. In 2018 and 2019 we were getting an average of four thousand visitors a day.

Levin: José, what do you think will be the long-term effect of the pandemic on the way Machupicchu is conserved and managed?

Bastante: Well, we’re not going to allow the Historic Sanctuary or National Archaeological Park of Machupicchu to go onto the endangered list, that’s for sure. And we are changing a lot of things regarding how the place is managed. We’re setting more limitations with new rules for visiting the site. We are even establishing fines for visitors and guides who do not follow the visiting rules.

Levin: Jonathan, do you think that the pandemic was in some way a motivating force in further propelling the restoration of Notre Dame?

Truillet: Yes, I think the pandemic has been a real motivation to move forward. All the teams—the curators, architects, engineers, private consultants, and craftsmen—know we have a duty to the cathedral and the project. In France, the cathedral fire was a real catastrophe, so we have to rebuild to create a new hope in the country. People are depressed because of the pandemic and because of the economic crisis, which is the worst economic crisis since the end of the war. Rebuilding the cathedral is a symbol of hope, and we have to work to give that symbol of hope to France.

Loh: This tragedy that Jonathan is talking about—there are times like this where you really see people put things beyond themselves, beyond the dollar, beyond their own survival. They want to be part of something. And that’s been missing from our work for a long time. We used to save great monuments like Angkor, and now it’s all been done by national bodies. We have no national aspirations left. Maybe that’s why the cathedral project in the midst of the pandemic brings people together in France, whereas in Malaysia people are falling apart. They’re just fighting for survival. There’s no flagship project that inspires hope. We’re trying to pin our hopes on something else in this world of heritage we care so much about, and yet what’s another building if nobody cares about it.

Levin: Jonathan, on an average workday, are there people who gather around the cathedral just to watch the work being done?

Truillet: Yes, today we still have people coming to the area around the cathedral and taking photographs. People want to know what kind of work we are doing. Before the fire, Notre Dame was one of the most visited monuments in Europe, with twelve million visitors a year. We also know that the average length of the visit was only twenty minutes, which is a very limited amount of time to understand the cathedral, its history, and its architecture. As we prepare for the reopening, we want to improve the visitor experience while enabling better conservation and understanding of the monument. And we’d also like to increase the number of local visitors to Notre Dame. When you are Parisian, the mass tourism is a reason not to visit the cathedral.

Bastante: We are working with other institutions for a worldwide campaign regarding the need to have a ticket to enter Machupicchu in advance. We had so many problems when we reopened because according to law we could only allow in 30 percent of our full capacity. People need to understand that if you don’t get to see Machupicchu, there are still a lot of other places in Peru that are beautiful to see. Sadly, however, you can have a sky full of stars, but if suddenly the sun appears, the stars will fade. Well, Machupicchu is like that. The “Outstanding Universal Value” of the site is just too strong. If you have been to Machupicchu, you understand that.

Loh: I’m quite optimistic in the sense that while there are huge problems related to tourism, with digitization we can use artificial intelligence to control our sites by predicting how many people will come at any one time. The technology that’s going to come out of China in the next couple of years will amaze you, and if we use it properly to control tourism—to give people a variety of experiences rather than a singular experience—we may be able to handle the crowds.

Truillet: We are also thinking about artificial intelligence in preparing to reopen the cathedral and to organize the way that people visit. But this is not easy, because Notre Dame is a church—a place where people also come to pray and to have a connection with God. It is not easy to control the way that people visit this kind of monument, but we are trying to find a solution in time for the cathedral’s reopening.

Bastante: With our new visitor center, we are going to change the whole experience of Machupicchu. People will enter the center—which will be part of the Machupicchu site—and then a ten-minute introduction will explain to them what Machupicchu is and how they should behave in a sacred place. Some tourists do not understand that Machupicchu is the same as any other sacred religious place. They arrive, they see grass, and they say, “Oh, this is a park, I can lie down and do whatever I want.” No, it’s not like that. Machupicchu really is a sacred place, like Notre Dame. If you inform tourists in advance what they’re going to see—and the rules—that helps conservation of heritage. A hundred informed tourists do less harm to a site than one tourist who is not informed.