World Heritage is big business, bringing hordes of tourists to poor countries that can use the jobs and the cash. It can also overwhelm the very sites it is designed to protect with all the less-savory aspects of mass travel, from chain hotels and restaurants to the impact of thousands of sport-shoed feet treading on fragile ground.
But World Heritage can also be an odd business, giving recognition to traditions (like premodern tribal dances and giant French family meals) that might have little aesthetic value to any group except the one that practices it.
Whatever the merits, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has embraced the concept. In fact, UNESCO loves heritage so much that it has created two treaties to enshrine it.
The first, the World Heritage Convention, dating from 1972, builds on the notion of the US national parks system, which was set up to defend a wild landscape before it disappeared. The second, the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage, was introduced in 2003 to defend traditions, not places, and is more controversial.
Some 188 nations have ratified the first convention. To date, there are 725 cultural, 183 natural and 28 properties combining the two, in 153 countries. The World Heritage list represents a catalog of marvels. Italy, needless to say, includes the Leaning Tower of Pisa (the whole Piazza del Duomo, to be fair) and Venice and its lagoon. Jordan has Petra and Wadi Rum. France even lists the banks of the Seine.
Russia has the Kremlin, Red Square and Lake Baikal. The US lists Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon and the Everglades (cited as endangered). Independence Hall is on the list, but not the White House. Funny, that.
Luxembourg pretty much lists itself; Afghanistan includes the sad remains of the great Buddhas of Bamiyan, blown up by the Taliban.
The Marshall Islands has one listing only: the Bikini Atoll Nuclear Test Site. Some distinction, to put it gently: to cite for preservation a place of devastation consecrated to the potential end of everything.
In his book Disappearing World: The Earth’s Most Extraordinary and Endangered Places, Alonzo C. Addison, a director in UNESCO’s external relations department, arranges sites in varying degrees of distress from a variety of causes, including conflict, theft, development, pollution, invaders and tourism.
Conflict is the most obvious threat, whether in Afghanistan, Jerusalem, Kosovo or around the Preah Vihear temple on the border of Cambodia and Thailand, where there have been three armed clashes since the temple was listed.
The Darfur crisis has done extraordinary damage to the Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and to the northern white rhinoceros there, killed for horns by militias seeking to buy arms, Addison notes.
But most troubling may be the unintended consequences of mass tourism. Nations want to promote these sites for income. And good or bad, Addison said in an interview, “The world is more global and some sites can’t deal with all the tourists,” whether it’s Machu Picchu or Angkor Wat. (UNESCO is now trying to put Machu Picchu on the list of endangered sites.)
In 2008, the New York Times wrote about the impact on a little town in northern Japan of the naming of the long-disused Iwami silver mines as a World Heritage site. With about 400 inhabitants and little infrastructure, Omori was inundated with hundreds of thousands of tourists, wanting to check off the new site.