I’ve had the pleasure of visiting dozens of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, 16 of which I’ve written about, here. One of the main questions I receive about these places, is from those who are wondering “What is a UNESCO World Heritage Site?” In short, they are places that are very important to humanity and/or society as a whole, or culturally significant to local cultures. These sites can be or contain anything from areas of unsurpassed natural beauty that are home to flora or fauna that can only be found in that area, to sites that are important for religious, historical, architectural, cultural, or scientific reasons, among other reasons. Basically, if it’s unique, important, and representative of the area in which it’s found, it is eligible to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Who Determines What Constitutes a UNESCO World Heritage Site?
UNESCO stands for “United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization”. The very first UNESCO World Heritage was the Galapagos Islands, in 1978. The process of creating, protecting, preserving, and supporting important cultural sites was inspired by the country of Egypt, when the nation had planned to move a large dam, that would then flood part of the Nile Valley. Egyptians needed assistance moving the Monuments of Nubia, which are important for historical, cultural, and architectural reasons. They were able to successfully move these ancient edifices through funding from UNESCO, making it the first example of the UNESCO committees saving historic sites for preservation.
To become a UNESCO World Heritage Site, each nation drafts up a tentative list of sites that meets at least one of the 10 qualifications required for consideration. They then send that list to the International Council on Monuments and Sites and the World Conservation Union, who meet together once per year in order to evaluate and select which sites (if any) meet the requirements to become UNESCO Sites. These sites are either selected, held in review if they require more information about how the site might qualify for assistance and preservation, or rejected. If a site is rejected, the country is able to reapply for the next cycle after strengthening their argument and data that backs up why the sites need to be preserved.
What Isn’t a UNESCO World Heritage Site
To better understand what makes a UNESCO World Heritage Site so significant, let’s look at an example of what isn’t a UNESCO World Heritage Site. For example, something like Amazon’s or Microsoft’s headquarters would never be considered to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Even though Amazon may have changed the course of the world by shaping shipping and shopping habits, or in Microsoft’s case, they were responsible for perfecting the technology to make the internet accessible in the way that we use it today, which connected the entire world and made sharing knowledge on a massive scale possible, businesses aren’t generally considered to qualify.
Examples of UNESCO World Heritage Sites
Currently, there are 1,121 UNESCO World Heritage Sites around the world. Italy and China have the most sites, with 55 each, whereas several countries like Bhutan, Guyana, Liberia, and Sierra Leone currently do not have any, despite having numerous beautiful, worthy areas that may one day become UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
A few of the most famous UNESCO World Heritage Sites include the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, Olympic National Park in Washington, USA, Easter Island, the Taj Mahal in India, Machu Pichu in Peru, the Great Wall of China, Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Victoria Falls, Stonehenge, the city of Venice and its lagoon, Edinburgh Old Town, Pompeii in Italy, the Shrines and Temples of Nikko in Japan, Himeji Castle in Japan, Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara, and hundreds of others. Many of these are either architectural examples, ruins, nature areas, or well preserved old towns that showcase ancient architecture and cultural influences that can’t be replicated or found anywhere else in the world.
Chances are you’ve either already visited a few UNESCO Sites, or you’ve been near some, as they are generally very popular tourist destinations due to their importance and/or beauty. In the United Sates, The Statue of Liberty, several national parks like Yellowstone, Everglades, Olympic, and Grand Canyon National Park, and buildings like Monticello and Hollyhock House are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. See the full list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, here.
Benefits of UNESCO World Heritage Sites
There are numerous benefits to being designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the process to apply is rigorous and competitive. While there isn’t a cap at how many sites can be designated, there is a limitation on how much benefits exist to go around. The funds allocated by the UNESCO help nations with preservation, repairs, education, maintenance and upkeep of their important sites in order to preserve them for future generations. This generally leads to an increase in tourism which benefits local economies, and increases awareness of that region and what makes it so special.
While it may seem that there is no down side to this, it is sometimes a double edged sword. Having more funds to preserve and make improvements is of course a major benefit, but the designation also increases the number of visitors, exponentially increasing the wear and tear on these irreplaceable sites as tourists come in droves from around the world to see them. This is why it’s so important to always be respectful and careful when traveling, and to not behave like a salacious tourist.
How to Help Preserve UNESCO World Heritage Sites
Be a responsible, respectful traveler, not a tourist. Be thoughtful and careful when visiting these places, and as with anywhere else never litter, disrupt wildlife or local plants, and always stay on marked paths. Try not to touch anything, particular the buildings themselves if they exist on the site, because if everyone touched these things, they’d wear away even faster and disappear sooner. Even if we aren’t a part of the UNESCO committees, we can all do our part to help preserve these incredible sites, and everywhere else we travel to in the world, to ensure that they remain and flourish for centuries to come.