In May 2013 the GCI, the Dunhuang Academy, and ICOMOS China organized a three-day colloquium at the Mogao Grottoes to discuss visitor management and tourism at heritage sites in China. The Mogao Grottoes, comprising nearly five hundred painted Buddhist cave temples cut into a cliff face, date from the fourth to fourteenth centuries. An indication of the site's significance is that it was among China's first group of nominations to the World Heritage List in 1987.
China's domestic and international tourism has reached unsustainable levels at many of its World Heritage sites. Because they are geographically remote, the Mogao caves had until recently escaped overwhelming tourism pressure. When they were opened in 1979 there were 26,000 visitors. Visitors currently number nearly 800,000 annually, the great majority being Chinese. Most come from May through October, creating severe pressure on the site during peak holidays, when as many as 18,000 people may arrive on a single day. Normal summer daily visitation is from 3,000 to 6,000. The Dunhuang Academy, the statutory authority, has developed measures for visitor management that today comply with and even lead other sites in terms of standards for guide quality and professionalism.
To comprehensively address the site's mass tourism, the GCI and the Dunhuang Academy undertook a study of visitor carrying capacity in the context of a visitor management plan. From 2006 to 2012, extensive research, assessment, and testing were carried out to understand the relationship between visitors and wall paintings deterioration, to identify conditions limiting public visitation of grottoes, and to establish monitoring indicators. The academy is developing a new visitor center outside the site's boundaries, which will serve an orientation and interpretation function and help control visitor loads. As the point of departure, it will include virtual tours of caves that may not be open to the public or to all visitors.
The visitor management challenges faced at Mogao are mirrored at other heritage sites. It was in this context—and with an eye to increasing awareness in China of approaches to visitor management—that the partners conceived the colloquium. Case studies, including theoretical approaches and visitor flow modeling, were discussed.