For more than two decades, the Getty Conservation Institute has worked with the Dunhuang Academy, the managing agency of the Mogao Grottoes at Dunhuang, China, on conservation issues related to this World Heritage Site. Part of that effort has included research work to establish a visitor-carrying capacity for the site in the context of a comprehensive visitor management plan.

The Dunhuang Academy has long been attentive to the need to provide interpretive resources for visitors. Since the late 1980s, various facilities have been developed at the site, beginning with an exhibition center housing eight facsimile caves hand-painted at a 1:1 scale. These exact copies of the wall paintings and sculptures have been a hallmark of the scholarly and documentation work of the staff since the 1940s.

Other displays at the exhibition center have followed over the years, on topics such as the history of the so-called Library Cave, conservation of the wall paintings and site, and the early days of the Dunhuang Academy. Constrained by operators’ rigid schedules, a typical visitor experienced only the standard two-hour guided tour of the caves and then departed. The sharp increase in visitor numbers in recent years has put enormous stress on the caves. Some eight hundred thousand people are now coming annually, mostly in the summer months.

After several years of design and construction, a new visitor center opened in September 2014 with a flurry of celebrations. Located fifteen kilometers off-site, the Visitor Center is a state-of-the-art facility that draws architectural inspiration from the great sand dunes visible to the west. Now all visitors begin at the center with a site orientation. This consists of two audiovisual experiences: a film reenacting the history of Dunhuang—founded in 111 BCE to protect the border from incursions by nomad horsemen from the steppe—and a digital presentation in a domed theater covering all the major dynastic styles of the art of the caves. From here visitors are transported to the site to see the actual caves and the other on-site exhibitions.

Together with an online reservation system, the new Visitor Center is part of the site’s comprehensive visitor management plan, which also includes the recently completed visitor capacity study, Strategies for Sustainable Tourism at the Mogao Grottoes of Dunhuang, China (2015), jointly undertaken by the Dunhuang Academy and the GCI and published through SpringerBriefs in Archaeology.