The Challenge of Managing Visitors to Archaeological Sites in the Mayan Riviera, Mexico

In the first week of July I went to the Mayan Riviera as part of my duties as the Head of the Unit for Planning and Management of Archaeological Sites in the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH). The main objective of this field visit was to carry out an holistic inspection of the current management and operation status of the archaeological sites open to the public on the easter coast of the Yucatan Peninsula (commonly known as the Mayan Riviera). The sites I visited were Muyil, Tulum, Xelhá, Xcaret and Playa del Carmen. These are my preliminary results of this visit (I am still working on the processing of the data – very interesting information!)

First of all, some location information. The sites I visited are located on the eastern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, within the Mexican state of Quintana Roo. As some of you dear readers may know, Quintana Roo is one of the main tourisitc destinations of Mexico (and the world I would say), with two main touristic beach hubs, Cancun and Playa del Carmen. On the coast, the Mayan Riviera, several archaeological sites are open for public visits, and this may be the main challenge in this region of Mexico.

Location of the visited Mayan archaeological sites on the eastern coast of Quintana Roo


Muyil is managed by the Director of Operations of Tulum, considering is very close to this site. The area open to the public is quite small, but what the regional authorities have been doing is to consolidate the site as a model example of how to maintain the vegetation. This is more important than you may thought. The weather on the region is very humid and the jungle around the sites may be an obstacle for the tourism, for what a proper gardening and maintenance programme is necessary. Muyil is a site with a small amount of visitors per month so the management strategies are focused on guarantee a visitation experience. Something very important about density of visitors will be noticed further on.

Access to the archaeological site.

Interpretative signage in Muyil.

Maintained green areas.

“The castle”, Muyil’s main structure.


Tulum is the more visited archaeological site in the Mexican Mayan Region, just ahead of Chichen Itza (there may be months when Chichen Itza is more visited than Tulum, but in general Tulum has more visitors). This is mainly because its location, on the heart of the touristic development of the Mayan Riviera, surrounded by the main cities in the area, modern Tulum, Playa del Carmen and Cancun. It is common, if you go to one of these resort cities, to have a day trip to Tulum. Also, it is known that Tulum is the favourite beach destination for visitors that want to do both, archaeological tourism and beach (and I have to say, the very turquoise colour of the Caribbean, white sand, rocky cliffs, and pre-Hispanic Mayan buildings behind you, it is actually quite impressive and breath taking).

Visitors on the viewing point of the sea and the main structure, The Castle.

The inspection visit to Tulum was focused on evaluate the conservation of the heritage signage. The weather in the coast is very agressive, and the sunlight may damage the signage fabrics. Although I took the chance of being in the site to take some photographs of the areas where visitors congregate the most. And yes, there may be a problem in the near future (I was very impressed with the amount of visitors on a regular Tuesday. According to the Director of Operations of the site, the day with the major visitors density is Saturday and Sunday, with a “rush hour” – yes, Tulum has rush hours – between 9am and 11am), for what a visitors management programme will be implemented very soon.

Queue to buy the entrance ticket.

Rush hour in Tulum.

The weather could be very agressive. Finding shade is a must!

Tulum is the only archaeological site in Mexico with three opening times. One regular visitation time, between 9am and 5pm, and two special opening times (which require a special ticket, more expensive than the regular access ticket), one in the early morning, and the other one after closing time. I had the opportunity to enter into the site after the last group visited the site. And let me tell you something: Tulum without visitors is MAGICAL. This made me think about the great challenge for us heritage managers to implement visitors management plans considering all elements, mostly the visitors experience and the conservation of the archaeological heritage.

Tulum without visitors. So quiet! You can even hear the sea.


You might heared before this name, Xelhá. This is because Xelhá is actually two places: the most known Xelhá is the resort-beach park in the coast, famous for snorkeling activities and eco-tourism; the other place less known is the archaeological site, which gave the name to the resort-beach park.

The site have been in moderate abandonment, but currently the regional offices of INAH in Quintana Roo have being implementing a major programme in order to diversify the visitation offers outside Tulum. I have been closely involved on this kind of programmes in Mexico, developing archaeological routes using major archaeological sites as a focus point in order to communicate to the public the opportunity they have to visit other archaeological sites, some of them bigger and more impressive than the most visited ones (not always, though). This measures are very important in the Mayan Riviera, around Tulum. As the pictures above may tell you, Tulum may have in the near future some difficulties with the carrying capacity of the site and public areas.

Main entrance to the site.

Updated introduction sign, with a site plan.

Detail of the site plan updated sign.

Paths of the site are being renovated.

The visit route in Xelhá, tracked with a GPS. This is actually the route available for visitors.

Xelhá, then, is being attended with this consideration. The visitor services infrastructure is being attended, with a general programme of conservation and update of signage being carried out. Xelhá is a very impressive archaeological site, with some archaeological features unique in the region: it has a pre-Hispanic artificially made road known in Mayan language as “Sacbé” (which means “white road”). This road connects the center of the site with a resiential and ceremonial archaeolgical group known as “The Jaguar Group”, which is located next to a natural water source known as “cenote”. One problem in this site, though: MOSQUITOS. Oh my god…

Sacbé (white road).

The sacbé (white road) connects the center of the site with the Jaguar Group. Notice the artificial elevation of the road above the bedrock.

The Jaguar Group.

The cenote, a natural water source common in the Yucatan Peninsula.

About Xcaret and Playa del Carmen: those sites are very interesting cases of management of archaeological heritage in the region. The archaeological buildings of Xcaret are scatered within a resort-park named also Xcaret, and Playa del Carmen (originally known in Mayan language as Xamanhá) is a site scatered within a residential area and hotels. But that would be for another post. I am still working on the data. Stay tuned!

Note: All the management data collected on the field is being desk-processed in Mexico City.

The Business School archaeologist’s Friday

Ian at workIn a University setting, Friday can often be a day of catching up, with attempts to carve out some thinking time or at least a chance to focus on tasks with a little less distraction from normal.  For me, as an archaeologist who also runs a University Business School based in Suffolk, England, I am using the day to combine the subjects of archaeology and business in a serendipitous way.  So far today I have marked a tourism management student’s undergraduate dissertation focused on ‘The economic and cultural impacts currently experienced by the Heart of Neolithic Orkney as a heritage site’, and have also spent an hour discussing a journal paper which I am contributing to with a colleague here at UCS as well as collaborators over in Italy.  This paper is exploring the interplay between residents in towns and villages on the Amalfi coast and the World Heritage Site designation which covers the area.  Using a web-based survey tool, it has gathered a dataset which we are now exploring to consider the views of citizens on their inter-relationships with the built and natural environment in which they live, ‘official’ bodies associated with conservation management and policy, and tourism and economic development organisations.

Ipswich waterfrontWhilst considering the relationships communities have with archaeology in far flung parts of Italy and the Orkneys, my eye is drawn to the office window and the great view I have over the half-finished regeneration project that is the Ipswich Waterfront.  Another part of my role at the moment is to help support the development of a co-ordinated tourism strategy for the town as part of a revitalised urban vision, through the creation of a Destination Management Organisation – and archaeology has a key role to play in this: the historic environment and bits of upstanding archaeology are to be seen on the historic quayside and found all over the town.  The story of Ipswich is one which can be told readily and engagingly through archaeology with the Anglo-Saxons at its heart, to a thriving mediaeval town and port, to an industrial hub and gradual resurgence as a University town  – and there is a strong desire by many in the town to see a celebration of this heritage and an opportunity to provide a visitor experience which could support economic growth and inward investment.

Love in the Time of Visitor Studies

Love between strangers takes only a few seconds and can last a whole life.”  Simon Van Booy (the greatest exponent of contemporary romanticism in the World) probably did not write this with tourists and archaeological sites on his mind – but to me, it suits the situation just perfectly!

Quite often, tourists approach archaeology as something alien or indecipherable and they find it really hard to actually enjoy it. But if a site or a series of artifacts are presented in a way that live up to their expectations, visitors might change their attitude towards cultural sites forever.

What I do as a job is to find out what makes this potential long-lasting love actually bloom bright and wild as soon as the visitors walk into the archaeological site of Herculaneum.


A view of the archaeological site of Herculaneum

 I have no bow and heart-shaped arrows as weapons but just a pen, a bunch of questionnaires and a lot of patience: today I am going to interview at least 40 tourists who might not be as enthusiastic about answering my questions as I am asking them.

I am an Audience Development Consultant for the Herculaneum Conservation Project (HCP) a collaborative project between the Packard Humanities Institute and the Soprintendenza (Italian local authority managing the site), supported by the British School at Rome that in the past 10 years has sought to address some of the most pressing threats to the survival of the site.

More and more museums and archaeological sites in Europe are doing what it takes to make visitors want to come and feel welcome and make sure they’re eager to return. Herculaneum is determined to make visitors ‘fall in love’ with its archaeology; and HCP is there to facilitate this process.

But, first things first: who the hell are these people coming and going from the site every day?! In order to answer this compelling question, an Audience Development Program was set up in early 2013.

The initiative I am personally contributing to is a 12-month campaign of questionnaires for independent visitors. The research, which is the first of its kind in Italy, aims to cluster tourists to Herculaneum under different profiles, in order to eventually produce targeted outreach and interpretation campaigns. Together with other shorter studies (targeting non-visitors, organized tours, schools and the local community) the program itself aspires to develop and nurture a relationship between the archaeological site, the local authority managing it and the public over the long term.

What my team does in practice are face-to-face interviews with tourists to the site at the end of their visit. We designed a questionnaire in order to gain information about their type of holiday and the reasons why they decided to come to Herculaneum. We also collect personal impressions, criticism and suggestions. Anything is welcome, as far as it helps us improving the visitor experience onsite.


Me and one of the visitor-interviewee in Herculaneum

I enjoy the work on the field and the whole experience of collecting data as it gives me an everyday different perspective on the site. When you work with archaeology, you are quite likely to forget that an archaeological site or a museum are also places where people come just to have a good time and maybe learn something new.

Visitor studies are then an essential tool not just to center the interpretation and outreach strategy, but also to keep the archaeology and the institution relevant to current societies and future-oriented.

You always need new tips to keep the spark alive!

The archaeology of early tourism in the Swiss Alps

Or how a short survey of archaeological remains in the Grindelwald area (Berner Oberland) shows that not only modern but also 18th and 19th century tourism left traces in the land-scape. In my job at the Archaeological Service of the Canton of Berne I don’t get to do much field-work these days. I do however get the occasional treat to check out sites that volunteers report to us. On this day of archaeology, I am writing up the results of such a day out. To-gether with our local man, I drove and walked around Alpine pastures and steep forests above Grindelwald. Peter grew up in Grindelwald, knew everyone we met and has a wealth of knowledge about local history.

The Unterer Grindelwald glacier in an early 19th century book (Gabriel Lory 1822, Voyage pittoresque de l'Oberland Bernois). The highest grassy knoll to the left of the glacier is the Bäregg where the guesthose would stand some 30 years later, the site of the kiln would be in the steep wooded slopes further down.

The Unterer Grindelwald glacier in an early 19th century book (Gabriel Lory 1822, Voyage pittoresque de l’Oberland Bernois). The highest grassy knoll to the left of the glacier is the Bäregg where the guesthose would stand some 30 years later, the site of the kiln would be in the steep wooded slopes further down.

We recorded several building remains (dry stone masonry) and structures to do with early modern or medieval agriculture/transhumance, but a lime kiln in rather strange location led me to find out more about the history of early tourism in Grindelwald. Thanks to its location at the foot of the Eiger and two large glaciers reaching the valley floor, Grindelwald has been destination for foreign travelers from the late 18th century onwards. Although agriculture still plays a role, economically the village relies almost solely on tourism.

One of the first paths constructed in Switzerland for touristic rather than transport purposes was built in 1821 from Grindelwald to the Stieregg, a spot roughly 600 m above the valley floor and from which one could admire the so-called ice sea («Eismeer») of the Unterer Grindelwald glacier. From 1823 there was a refuge at the end of the path and 1858 a guest-house was built at the nearby Bäregg. The guesthouse was twice destroyed by avalanches and rebuilt (1868, 1906), but after another avalanche in 1940 its ruined walls were left un-touched. A replacement was erected at Stieregg in 1952, this time lasting until 2005 when it had to be pulled down because the glacial moraine it stood on became unstable. Due to the substantial retreat and decreased thickness of the glacier since the 19th century the moraine has been sliding on the glacier.

19th century lime kiln above Grindelwald (Flielenwald). Foto: Archaeological Service of the Canton of Berne.

19th century lime kiln above Grindelwald (Flielenwald). Foto: Archaeological Service of the Canton of Berne.

But back to our small kiln. It lies in an extremely steep bit of forest to the north of the Unterer Grindelwald glacier gorge and a good 400 m above the valley floor. This was puzzling, be-cause chalk and wood occur abundantly on the valley floor to allow lime production near the permanent settlement. Also, huts and houses on the higher summer pastures were until very recently timber structures resting on dry stone plinths. Having a look at the ruins of the Bäregg guesthouse we hit upon the solution. Its walls were mortared and our kiln site does lie near the path to the Bäregg. According to late 19th century maps the kiln would have been just below the tree line, suggesting it was probably used to produce lime for building work on the Bäregg guesthouse far above where trees grow. Whether the lime was destined for the new guesthouse of 1858 or a rebuilding phase we cannot say for the time being.

Ruins of the Bäregg guesthouse above Grindelwald, built in 1858. Photo: Archaeological Service of the Canton of Berne.

Ruins of the Bäregg guesthouse above Grindelwald, built in 1858. Photo: Archaeological Service of the Canton of Berne.

Today, the glaciers have retreated far above the valley floor, changing the landscape of Grindelwald substantially, but still tourists keep coming to this picturesque spot in the Swiss Alps. Like them, I too enjoyed my detour from my usual field of activity in prehistory into the history of 19th and early 20th century tourism.

The Bäregg guesthouse in 1900 with the Unterer Grindelwaldglacier in the background.

The Bäregg guesthouse in 1900 with the Unterer Grindelwaldglacier in the background.

A day working in archaeological tourism

Up close and personal with Luwian rock relief, on tour in Turkey

Guests up close and personal with the Ivris rock relief, on tour in Turkey

Morning everyone!

I work for a company that specialises in archaeological holidays- taking interested (and interesting!) people all over the world to pursue their passion for the past. I just got back from leading a group of these lovely folk across the north of England along the line of Hadrian’s Wall, which it would have been cool to write about (and, indeed, I’ll be scribbling my report on the trip for a bit this afternoon..) However, for most of the year, I work as a researcher in the company’s head office.


Museums and Archaeology

Hello, my name is Candace and I am an Archaeologist.

The University of Sydney, Main quadrangle

This is wheremy career in archaeology began, at the University of Sydney as an undergraduate in the archaeology Department. And is now where I work for Sydney University Museums.


My role at the Sydney University Museums varies from day to day. I work part time as a Collections Officer with the Collection Management team, as well as part time as a Curatorial Assistant for the Nicholson Museum.  These positions afford me the ability to work with the public and behind the scenes of three very different Musuems and Art Galleries! Today I will be working across all three galleries and in the stores photographing my day as I go. In addition to my daily tasks I will also hopefully find some down time to work on a conference paper I’m presenting in two short weeks on my own archaeological research in Northern Greece and the central Balkans. Follow the captions in the Photo Gallery to see where I am and what I am up to!


Opening Day at National Museum of Scotland

I like to consider myself as a Heritage Management Consultant and sometimes even a Museum Designer. This morning for work (of course) I visited the Royal Museum which was just opened today by the National Museum of Scotland. The museum has been closed for about 3 years now and has been undergoing a £47 million renovation and reinterpretation. The important thing to say is that my firm Jura Consultants helped them with their redevelopment master-plan and supported them in their HLF bid for funding. Most projects that we’re involved in take quite a bit of time to come to fruition so it’s amazing to be able to see the designs you saw on paper become reality and experience the fruits of your labour.

And what a fantastic experience it is! There were thousands of people lining Chambers Street at 9am waiting for the doors to open. We had an animatronic T Rex, tribal drummers, aerial dancers abseiling from the roof, and fireworks. A great atmosphere indeed. The entrance has now been diverted from the main staircase to two street level entrances that lead into the undercroft. Here is a really spectacular and dramatic space. Once used for storage, the space has been converted into a visitor reception area that includes and information desk, cloak room, gift shop, toilets and a new Brasserie. From the dimly lit space, you then ascend into the light-filled Grand Gallery that seems almost like a birdcage with all the iron work. This is meant to be a ‘cabinet of curiosities’ that entices visitors with an array of different and wondrous objects. Beyond this space is an escalator that takes you up to the very top floor, allowing visitors to work their way down. This is an interesting feature and an important one as previous research found that only 5% of visitors made it beyond the ground floor. The other controversial move was to put the museum café on the first floor. But I think it’s one of those things that if you build it they will come.

It was quite clear that the animal gallery was the most popular. Jammed packed with people, prams and exotic animals. The incorporation of video screens with hanging oceanic creatures is quite something to behold. Other galleries include world cultures, design, nature inspired objects, Egyptians, sculpture, and decorative objects. I think the one thing that stands out is the lighting. It certainly adds to the atmosphere and creates distinctly different experiential areas. The colour scheme works really well too, using jewel tones to delineate thematic areas.

I think though, my favourite thing about today was observing the other patrons around me. One little boy asked why fish die, referring to a display in the animal galleries relating to environmental issues such as pollution, poaching etc. His mother responded with ‘because some people don’t recycle’. Another woman remarked about her disappointment with the Egyptians. ‘Liverpool has a mummy but there’s no mummy here.’ The same goes for the way people begin to use the space. We weren’t in the door 5 minutes and there were already people lined up for the café. There was a pram car park that started in one corner and people were sitting on display plinths and touching objects (hopefully this was the intention). I think what it reflects is that visitors are comfortable in the space, are able to read the space properly and that the museum has been a catalyst for conversation.

A truly great morning! I encourage everyone to make a trip themselves.