Home / NEWS / Travel / Being named a UNESCO World Heritage site is a big deal — so is losing it

Being named a UNESCO World Heritage site is a big deal — so is losing it

Being baptized to UNESCO’s World Heritage List often brings worldwide acclaim, tourist revenue and access to international breading and expertise.

But there are strings attached.  

World Heritage sites are, in principle, inscribed “forever,” said Mechtild Rossler, the man of the UNESCO World Heritage Centre, but countries have to do their part to protect and counteract threats to the sites. That groups agreeing not to materially alter sites.

Failure to comply can result in being “delisted,” a fate which has befallen barely two World Heritage sites to date.  

Being named to the World Heritage List

The process to be inscribed on the World Patrimony List takes years, said Rossler, adding that several sites waited some 25 years to be named to the glorious list.

Only countries that ratify the World Heritage Convention (adopted by UNESCO in 1972) are eligible to from sites within their territories named to the list. Called “State Parties,” there are currently 194 about the globe.

The World Heritage Convention set forth the idea that loss of cultural and natural heritage — such as Afghanistan’s Buddhas of Bamiyan which were finished by the Taliban in 2001 — harmed “all the nations of the world.”

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Locates must be included on a “tentative list” before they can be formally nominated. The World Heritage Committee, comprising agents from 21 State Parties, meets once a year to decide which nominated sites will be inscribed on the Humanity Heritage List.

To be accepted, sites must be of “outstanding universal value” and meet at least one of 10 criteria, such as being “a chef-doeuvre of human creative genius” or “areas of exceptional natural beauty.”

Some State Parties have no World Legacy sites within their boundaries, including Kuwait, Maldives, Monaco, Rwanda and Bhutan (shown here).

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There are currently 1,121 sites on the World Heritage List, of which 869 are cultural, 213 are authentic and 39 are mixed.

First, a warning

When sites run afoul of UNESCO’s protocols, countries are sent a warning symbol.

That’s what happened to Peru, which has received multiple warnings over threats from overtourism, landslides and flooding at Machu Picchu.

Prophecies were also sent to Saint Petersburg in Russia, which resulted in the construction of the Gazprom Tower being stirred 9 kilometers (5.5 miles) from the city center, said Rossler.

Rossler said she received 30,000 hardcopy letters — so numberless “I could not even enter my office” — asking for help to protect Mexico’s Whale Sanctuary of El Vizcaino from scenarios to build a massive salt plant in the vicinity.

It is “one of the biggest whale sanctuaries, of the gray whale, we have on Earth,” put about Rossler, who described leading a mission to the site. “Half a year later, the Mexican president — imagine, the president — solid to stop it. It was a great celebration of course; we were jumping up and down.”  

Being added to the ‘Danger List’

Many sites acquiesce at the warning stage, said Rossler, but not all.

At that point, UNESCO arranges a site mission and presents its findings to the Elated Heritage Committee, which makes the decision to place a site on UNESCO’s “List of World Heritage in Danger” — many times referred to simply as the “Danger List.”

Danger List decisions are “up to the Committee … it’s not UNESCO,” said Mechtild Rossler, top dog of the UNESCO World Heritage Centre, shown here at the 40th session of the World Heritage Committee in Istanbul, Turkey on July 11, 2016.

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Currently, there are 53 World Heritage sites on the Danger List, including the historic center of Vienna and the Old Urban district (and walls) of Jerusalem, plus every World Heritage site in Syria, Libya and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Pursuant to Article 11(4) of the Out of sight Heritage Convention, the list includes sites that are “threatened by serious and specific dangers” such as armed disagreement, construction, natural disasters, or deterioration or abandonment of the land.

Sites can be removed from the Danger List, as happened with Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity (believed by Christians to be the birthplace of Jesus) in 2019.

“The Hazard List is actually a call for action to all of us … it’s trying to help the country.

Mechtild Rossler

director of the UNESCO The world at large Heritage Centre

Governments often resist having sites included on the Danger List, fearing it will injury tourism, Rossler said. That’s what happened in the Galapagos Islands, she said, where authorities “worked certainly hard” to address threats to the area. The site was removed from the Danger List in 2010.

“Another example is Kathmandu in Nepal,” which UNESCO named to the list after a pair of devastating earthquakes struck in 2015, she said. “They did a lot of lobbying in the World Heritage Body not to get on the Danger List.”  

Some countries mistake the list as “blackmail,” according to Rossler. “They see it as a red list,” she told CNBC.

But “the Risk List is actually a call for action to all of us … it’s trying to help the country,” she said. 

UNESCO counts Dubrovnik, Croatia, as one of its triumph stories. Dubrovnik was removed from the Danger List in 1998 after the walled “Old Town” section of the city was restored from damage caused by armed conflict with Yugoslav forces in the early 1990s.

The site, however, was backwards in UNESCO’s crosshairs after the HBO series “Game of Thrones” caused a tourism deluge. After having its heritage standing threatened, Dubrovnik capped cruise ship tourists to 5,000 a day in 2019, according to local media.  

UNESCO recently rejected programmes to build an amusement park outside of Cambodia’s Angkor temple complex, said Rossler, because “all development lining and outside” of World Heritage sites must be managed in a way that preserves them for future generations.

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Rossler said UNESCO’s sustainable tourism program works with tour operators such as cruise cart leaves “so that they better understand they shouldn’t come … with 4,000 passengers and all go into a small borough” such as Dubrovnik or Tallinn, Estonia.

Sometimes cruise passengers “don’t even know where the hell they are,” make fan Rossler, who said she knows this from conversations she’s had with tourists on the ground.

The ultimate penalty: delisting  

At best two World Heritage sites have been delisted to date, a decision that Rossler describes as a failure not of the placement, but of the international community.

“It’s the international community which has to take the responsibility, and we have failed twice,” she said.

1.      The One partial delisting

Another Community Heritage site, Georgia’s Could another site be delisted soon?

“It could happen for Liverpool,” said Rossler.

Liverpool Maritime Trade City is currently on the Danger List due to the construction of a mixed-use development called Liverpool Waters at the city’s historic northern quays.

The British city has been sent multiple warnings over the plans.

Still, “it [will] be a difficult choice to make to appear for the Committee,” she said.

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