UNESCO World Heritage 40th Anniversary: Has It Helped Preserve Our Most Treasured Places?

Candice Gaukel Andrews September 11, 2012 6
Galapagos Islands

The Galápagos Islands were placed on the World Heritage in Danger List in 2007 due to invasive species, unbridled tourism, and overfishing. They were removed from the list in 2010. ©Patrick J. Endres

On your bucket list of travel destinations, there are probably several United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Sites: the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania, Machu Picchu in Peru, or the fjords, rocky coasts, and waterfalls of southwest New Zealand.

It’s no wonder that your list intersects with that of UNESCO’s. After all, the purpose of the World Heritage List was to identify our most beautiful places and unique customs and safeguard them against erosion and loss. Today, that list contains 962 properties noted for their “universal value to humanity.” Countries propose their own sites for inscription — which confers no funding but often promises a tourism boost. And therein lies a problem.

Nations will sometimes rush to nominate their places of natural beauty or their time-honored traditions in order to make money on them. Commerce and political considerations may drive such efforts, rather than conservation and education. In such cases, proper protocols are lacking to handle increased numbers of visitors. The unfortunate result is that we could literally be loving some of these spots to death. 

When tourism harms

New Zealand

The natural beauty of southwest New Zealand put Te Wahipounamu on the World Heritage List in 1990. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

In 1972, forty years ago, UNESCO developed an international convention to address two separate movements: the first focusing on the preservation of cultural sites, and the second dealing with the conservation of nature. In 1978, the convention named its first set of twelve World Heritage Sites, which included the Galápagos Islands in Ecuador and Yellowstone National Park in the United States. Today, in order for a place to be inscribed on the World Heritage Site list, it must meet at least one of ten selection criteria.

Because the World Heritage Site designation is recognized worldwide, it naturally attracts the attention of tour operators, tourism developers, and tourists themselves. People have come to expect that seeing such places will provide them with a unique experience, and tour operators know the sites promise an easily promotable, almost fail-proof, and profitable destination to bring visitors to. On the one hand, then, list inclusion has the potential to bring about economic benefits that support a site’s conservation and the local/national economy; but on the other, uncontrolled, poorly managed tourist traffic may have severe consequences for a place’s integrity and compromise its outstanding universal value.

The Galápagos Islands are a case in point. Their inclusion on the World Heritage List in 1978 brought a rapid increase in visitors. In response, the number of tour operators grew substantially, and burgeoning tour options and activities put people in areas of the islands that were previously off-limits. Hotel construction skyrocketed. Migration from mainland Ecuador jumped, as people sought jobs in the tourism industry. This put additional pressure on the islands’ resources and caused a growth in urbanization and social-issue problems. Soon, invasive species, insufficient waste management tactics, and pollution took their toll on native flora and fauna. By 2007, the Galápagos Islands had been put on the World Heritage in Danger List. (They were taken off in 2010.)

The Belize Barrier Reef System (BBRS) suffered a similar history. Despite strong concerns from the World Heritage Committee, land within the property was leased for tourism and real estate development. Mangrove cutting and coral dredging followed, until unsustainable levels were reached. The BBRS was put on the World Heritage in Danger List in 2009. The Taj Mahal, the Great Wall of China, the Venice lagoons, and the Grand Canyon have also been on the danger list at one time or another.

Guilt-free travel

But more often than not, tourism dollars are vital for managing World Heritage Sites and for conservation and monitoring activities. They also sustain local economies, create much-needed jobs, and grow a sense of pride in home regions.

Belize

UNESCO believes that cultural landscapes — such as sacred places — are part of our collective identity. ©Eric Rock

Today in the Galápagos Islands, for instance, a partnership between the national park, the Charles Darwin Research Station, and private tour operators allows tourists to see and hear firsthand the alarming facts about the impacts of human activity on the islands’ flora and fauna, and visitors leave knowing their tourist taxes are going to a good cause.

In 2006, the National Geographic Society’s Center for Sustainable Destinations did a study ranking the world’s top natural and cultural treasures. They found that the highest scorers have one thing in common: a local community committed to preserving its priceless landmark. Those with heavy tourist traffic still scored well.

So celebrate — guilt free — forty years of conserving our most treasured places by planning a visit to one or two of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites. While you’re there, consider this: From what you can observe, did inscribing this place on the list help protect it? How many of the sites have you visited?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,

Candy

As the leading experts in nature travel, many Nat Hab trips incorporate UNESCO World Heritage Sites on our itineraries.  Join us on a Galapagos tour, a Yellowstone adventure, an African safari, or a Machu Picchu adventure, just to name a few!

6 Comments »

  1. Kamal Aryal September 11, 2012 at 5:28 pm - Reply

    A very thought provoking article.
    We also face similar problems in Nepal as well. For example, UNESCO World Heritage Site, Chitwan National Park is home to Great one-horned Rhinoceros. It attracts thousands of tourists through-out the year but has also become hub for Rhino poachers because of its popularity. Although, Rhino poaching has slowed recently it is never known when poaching starts taking toll. You also have pointed out on how flux of travelers in one place could affect in habitat and eventually the number of animals residing in particular places. We hotels, travel agents and so on should work on conserving the habitat and animal population.

    Kamal,
    Rhino Lodge & Hotel
    Chitwan National Park

  2. Franklin L. September 12, 2012 at 11:10 am - Reply

    UNESCO World Heritage status is doing a wonderful job,conserving our most treasured places. It is indeed a tough job and we’ve got to appreciate this. It is not easy when one has to deal with political and cultural issues. Celebrating their achievements is one way of creating awareness and motivating those involved.

  3. Zanzibar Stone Town Heritage Society September 13, 2012 at 5:56 am - Reply

    To some extent it has helped, but still a lot more needs to be done especially capacity building in developing states.

  4. Carlyn Kline September 13, 2012 at 11:33 pm - Reply

    We have visited 116 of the UNESCO World Heritage sites, so can appreciate both sides of the issue. It is not only people, of course, who can endanger these wonderful places through overuse or neglect, but also factors such as weather and erosion (e.g. Pompeii, the Great Wall of China, and the Taj Mahal0. However, only people can offer intelligent and altruistic solutions to the problems. On the whole, UNESCO seems to be doing a good job, but there is always more to do.

  5. Maria de Fatima Botelho Sardinha September 14, 2012 at 6:46 am - Reply

    Thanks for this article. We need help for these places and look for a balanced way of life on these special places. I shared the 40th anniversary.

  6. Art Hardy September 18, 2012 at 7:43 am - Reply

    Wow. We seem to love these places to death.

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