The UNESCO World Heritage Program

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I’m sure everyone has heard of such famous places as the Great Pyramids, the Colosseum, the Great Wall of China, and the Taj Mahal. 

Besides all being famous landmarks, they have something else in common. They are all UNESCO World Heritage Sites. 

What is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and how does a site become one?

Learn more about the UNESCO World Heritage Site program on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

The story of the world heritage program begins back in the 1950s.

Gamal Abdel Nasser, the then president of Egypt, announced plans for the Aswan High Dam. The ambitious project would dam the Nile River, one of the world’s largest, and provide over 2 gigawatts of power for the growing country of Egypt.

It would also end the seasonal flooding of the Nile, which was the reason why Egypt was such a fertile region for agriculture. 

While the dam would provide a great many social improvements to Egypt, it did come at a great cost. 

The lake which would be created upriver from the dam, Lake Nasser, would submerge all of the archeological treasures which were on the banks of the river. 

There was an urgent race that ensued amongst archeologists to preserve and collect as much as possible before the area was inundated by the lake. 

In particular, there were two well-preserved sites, Abu Simbel and the Philae Temple, which needed to be totally disassembled, moved, and reconstructed somewhere above the new water line. 

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, spearheaded the international effort to save the Nubian monuments along the Nile. 

The project was completed in 1968, and it is still considered the greatest international world heritage preservation effort in history. Over 50 countries contributed over $40 million dollars to the operation. 

The international cooperation behind saving Abu Simbel lead to further interest in creating a more general regime for the protection of the world’s cultural and natural heritage. 

In 1965, the United States under the Lyndon Johnson administration held a conference proposing the idea of a “World Heritage Trust” whose mission was to protect “the world’s superb natural and scenic areas and historic sites for the present and the future of the entire world citizenry.”

Around the same time, in 1968, the International Union for Conservation of Nature also had a similar conference where they discussed ideas for the protection of natural sites. 

At the 1970 UNESCO general conference, a draft was proposed for a ‘Convention for the protection of the world cultural and natural heritage’. A treaty that would provide protection for some of the most important cultural and natural sites on Earth. 

In 1972 the text of the World Heritage Convention was approved and on November 7, 1973, the United States became the first signatory of the treaty. 

Currently, there are 193 countries that are signatories to the convention, which coincidently is the exact same as the number of countries in the United Nations, but the lists are not the same. There are four UN member states which have not signed the convention: Liechtenstein, Nauru, Somalia, and Tuvalu. Three of the four are just too small to have any sites to protect, Somalia just has a lot of other issues going on.

Likewise, there are four non-UN member states which have signed: the Cook Islands, Niue, the Holy See, and Palestine. 

The Convention took effect in 1975.

Once the convention was in effect, there was a legal standing for the protection of a list of heritage sites deserving protection. What they didn’t have was an actual list of sites. 

Creating such a list was the next order of business. 

In 1977, the first session of the World Heritage Committee was held in Paris. Here they set about the business of implementing the ratified convention, and the first order of business was electing the first world heritage committee.

The world heritage committee is basically the working group which determines which sites get onto the world heritage list. There are currently 21 countries that serve on the committee, with each country serving a four-year term. 

With the first world heritage committee set, the second session of the committee held in 1978 in Washington DC,  was when the first world heritage sites were selected and inscribed to the list.

There were 12 sites in the first class of 1978. They are:

  • The Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
  • The City of Quito, Ecuador
  • Simien National Park, Ethiopia
  • Rock-Hewn Churches, Lalibela, Ethiopia
  • L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Park, Canada
  • Nahanni National Park, Canada
  • Aachen Cathedral, Germany
  • Krakow’s historic center, Poland
  • Wieliczka and Bochnia Salt Mines, Poland
  • Island of Goree, Senegal
  • Mesa Verde National Park, United States
  • Yellowstone National Park, United States

Some of these places you’ve certainly heard of, and others you might not have. I’ve personally been to 11 of the 12 sites from the first class and I can personally vouch that they are all well-deserving of world heritage status. 

Since the inscription of the first 12 sites in 1978, the world heritage committee has met annually and has listed sites every year, except for 2020 which was canceled due to the pandemic. 

As of the time of recording, there are 1,121 sites inscribed on the world heritage list. A site can be listed as either a cultural site, a natural site, or a mixed site. The current breakdown is 869 cultural sites, 213 natural sites, and 39 mixed sites.

There are ten criteria that the committee uses to determine if a site should be on the list. There are 6 cultural criteria and 4 natural criteria. To be listed a site has to only meet one of the ten criteria, although many sites will meet more than one. 

Becoming a world heritage site isn’t as easy as you might think. The entire process can easily take over a decade, and it can cost the country which is proposing the site anywhere from hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars.

The first step is the creation of a tentative list for each member state. This is done by each state and there is really no limit to what they can or can’t put on the tentative list. Some countries only have a few sites, others have a long list.

Once it is on the list, each country has to then prioritize their submissions. How the submissions are done will vary from country to country. Some countries do it centrally, and in others, each site or locality is responsible for most of the work. 

I’ve been able to personally meet with several people who headed up the efforts at getting world heritage sites listed, and it is a lengthy process. They had to commission multiple studies, get land surveys done, and commission detailed histories of the site. One of the people who headed up a site inscription showed me all of their work, and it was the equivalent of a set of encyclopedias. 

When sufficient work has been done, the nominating country will submit the site for debate and approval at a future session of the committee.

There are several independent organizations that advise the committee on the inclusion of sites. They are the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property, the International Union for Conservation of Nature or IUCN, and the International Council on Monuments and Sites or ICOMOS.

One of the biggest criticism of the world heritage committee as of late is that the process has become extremely politicized. The closest thing I can compare it to might be the process for awarding Olympics or world cups, except that they give out over 20 of them every year. 

The committee will often vote more based on political pressures, and awarding countries sites based on a tit for tat, than on the merits of the site itself. In fact, in recent years, many sites that were not recommended for inscription by ICOMOS were voted and inscribed anyhow. 

Most of the real obvious sites which people are aware of, like the Great Pyramids or Petra, were inscribed decades ago. Most of the sites which are now listed tend to be very obscure ones that most people haven’t heard of.

There is enormous pressure to have sites listed. Not only is it an issue of national prestige, but it is also an issue of economics. Once a site can use the world heritage name and logo, it can see a dramatic increase in tourism. 

There is starting to be some pushback against the politicization of the world heritage program. A new organization from professionals in heritage conservation was just launched called Our World Heritage, which is trying to hold UNESCO accountable. Their concern is that the desire to get more and more sites listed for reasons of prestige and money has taken over the original mission of the program, which was the preservation of cultural and natural assets.

From the standpoint of the World Heritage Convention, the protection which they can provide sites on the list is mostly persuasion and public pressure. Sites that are threatened by development or lack of upkeep can be placed on a special list of Threatened Sites. In extreme cases, a site can be delisted, however, this has only happened twice in the 42  years which the list has been in operation.  The Dresden Elbe Valley in Germany was removed as was an oryx sanctuary in Oman.

To be fair, I’ve been to the Elbe Valley outside of Dresden and I found its removal to be absolutely ridiculous. 

With over 1,100 sites currently listed, you are bound to find an enormous amount of variety. 

The largest world heritage site by area is the Phoenix Island Protected Area in Kiribati, which has an area of 408,000 square kilometers, which is bigger than Paraguay. 

The smallest is the Holy Trinity Column in Olomouc, Czech Republic. It literally took me less than one minute to walk around it, without walking at a quick pace.

The southernmost site Macquarie Island, Australia off the coast of Antarctica at 54°S.

The northernmost site is the Natural System of Wrangel Island Reserve, Russia at 77°N.

There is also an enormous amount of variation between countries in how many sites they have. China and Italy share the lead for having the most sites with 55 each. Spain, Germany, and France also have over 40, with India, Mexico, and the UK each having over 30. 

I have a personal interest in the UNESCO World Heritage program. Since 2007 I’ve visited over 400 world heritage sites in over 100 countries. Some of my best travel experiences have been visiting lesser-known sites like East Rennell in the Solomon Islands, the Völklingen Ironworks in Germany, and Shark Bay in Western Australia. 

It has been an enjoyable part of my travels, and I’d say 9 out of 10 times, visiting a site I didn’t know much about has been a positive experience.

So the next time you are on a trip, even if you are traveling close to home, you might want to check out the list of over 1,100 UNESCO World Heritage Sites and see some of the best that that world has to offer.