Do you ever choose your travel destinations based on some special site you want to visit? Many people make travel choices for just this reason! Often these particular sites are World Heritage sites. When you travel, you might have noticed that some venues you visit bear the title “UNESCO World Heritage” sites.
Sounds official…fancy….but what does it really mean?
Who and What Is UNESCO?
Let’s start by explaining the vast and complicated organization of UNESCO—which stands for the United National Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization. UNESCO is an agency of the United Nations. According to a ThoughtCo blog, it has the noble mission of “promoting peace, social justice, human rights, and international security through international cooperation on educational, science, and cultural programs”.
There are more than 50 field offices around world. The UNESCO headquarters is in Paris.
UNESCO considers itself a sort of “laboratory of ideas.” It funds and administers programs to improve life on Planet Earth. This includes striving for a better understanding of nature, of the human and social sciences, culture, and communication and information.
UNESCO programs also aim to reduce poverty in developing countries, to promote universal primary education, eliminate gender inequalities in education, promote sustainable development, and protect environmental resources.
I’d say that touches on just about every pressing issue we humans face in modern times.
UNESCO History and the World Heritage Program
UNESCO was born in 1945, just after the United Nations was established. More than 40 countries from around the world came together with the goal of preventing another world war. Today there are almost 200 member states in UNESCO.
The World Heritage program falls within the five different UNESCO themes. It’s a hybrid blend of ideas. The World Heritage designation means a place has “outstanding universal value” according to the conventions of the United Nations. The program was established in 1972.
Its goal is to protect and preserve natural and cultural treasures across the globe.
The idea for this comprehensive program began more than a decade earlier. It began in the Middle East in 1959 during the construction of the Aswan High Dam. Building the great dam unearthed temples, monuments, and other ancient ruins of Egyptian Nubia.
Several countries came together as the United Arab Republic (Egypt, Syria, Sudan) and requested help from the United Nations in order to save these precious historic sites. UNESCO answered this request. It rallied the international community and launched the most comprehensive archeological excavation in history. The effort started an international conservation movement.
It took a good deal of politicking and persuading countries within the United Nations to embrace and fund the program. The 1972 World Heritage Convention produced a document that countries sign in order to participate in the World Heritage Site Program.
The Five C’s UNESCO Program
According to UNESCO, these are the five “C”s of the Convention:
C #1: Strengthen the Credibility of the World Heritage List, as a representative and geographically balanced testimony of cultural and natural properties of outstanding universal value.
C#2: Ensure the effective Conservation of World Heritage properties.
C#3: Promote the development of effective Capacity-building measures, including assistance for preparing the nomination of properties to the World Heritage List, for the understanding and implementation of the World Heritage Convention and related instruments.
C#4: Increase public awareness, involvement and support for World Heritage through communication.
C#5: Enhance the role of communities in the implementation of the World Heritage Convention.
When a country signs onto the Convention, they are pledging to conserve World Heritage Sites on their land, as well as protecting their national heritage. When a country has a site on the World Heritage List, they help raise awareness about their heritage (for local citizens, as well as visitors around the world). Hosting a World Heritage Site, of course, is good for tourism and can bring new revenue to a country’s economy.
World Heritage List
In 1978 the World Heritage List was created.
What would you imagine were the first sites to appear on the list, in need of protection and preservation?
Here are a few:
- The Galapagos Islands (Ecuador)
- Yellowstone National Park (U.S.)
- Lalībela rock churches (Ethiopia)
- Wieliczka and Bochnia Royal Salt Mines (Poland)
- Aachen Cathedral (Germany
Over the decades the list expanded. Today it extends to more than 165 countries and 1,000 properties.
By the way, there are about 24 World Heritage Sites in the U.S.
These include Carlsbad Caverns and Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, the Everglades National Park in Florida, the Grand Canyon (Arizona), Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (Hawaii), Monticello and the University of Virginia (Virginia), and the Statue of Liberty (New York).
Dozens more sites have been proposed for future designation.
You can read more on the Visittheusa.com website.
How Are World Heritage Sites Designated?
Let’s look more closely at how a proposed location becomes an official World Heritage Site.
There are so many stunning natural sites in the world, as well as a dazzling number of human-made structures. UNESCO had to create a clear structure and system for designating sites.
They came up with three categories.
Cultural sites are historic towns, cities, or buildings. They can also be archeological sites or sculptures or paintings.
Natural sites must fall within one or more of these categories:
1) they tell us about the Earth’s geologic process or record of life
2) they are examples of biological or ecological evolutionary process
3) they are places in nature that have extraordinary or rare beauty
4) they are sites of exceptional biodiversity, providing habitats for endangered or rare animals or plants.
Some sites are also a mixture of cultural and natural significance. The ratio of cultural to natural sites on the list is about 3:1.
So You Want to Apply to be a World Heritage Site….
Okay, let’s get started!
First, a clarification: sites are not owned by UNESCO or the United Nations. The sites are owned by local governments or sometimes by private parties.
Step 1: To get the process started, your country must sign the World Heritage Convention.
Step 2: Make a comprehensive list –known as a “Tentative List” of the most important natural and cultural heritage sites within your boundaries. Make sure you pay attention to the Criteria by which your proposal will be judged.
Step 3: Your Tentative List should contain your choice of the best possible sites over the next 5-10 years. UNESCO wants all the details—maps, history, descriptions. You’ll submit your nomination to the World Heritage Centre for evaluation by two different advisory bodies: the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Step 4: So far, so good! Now it’s up to the World Heritage Committee to make the final decision. This group meets once each year to go over the nominations.
Gary Arndt’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites Trivia List
Travel writer Gary Arndt has visited 410 World Heritage Sites since 2007. He tells us that 20 new Heritage Sites are created each year.
Here’s his trivia list:
- The country with the most sites is Italy with 47, which does not include sites in the Vatican or San Marino.
- The largest site by area is the Phoenix Islands Protected Area in the nation of Kiribati in the Pacific Ocean. It has an area of 408,250 km2.
- The smallest world heritage site is probably the Holy Trinity Column in Olomouc, Czech Republic. It is literally the size of a statue or fountain in a city square.
- The southernmost site is 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
- The most sites any person claims to have visited (to the best of Gary’s knowledge) is 720 by Bill Altaffer.
- This island of Surtsey in Iceland was created by volcanoes between 1963 and 1967. It was added as a world heritage site in 2008. It is of interest because no people are allowed on the island. Only 1 scientific team visits the island every 10 years to see how nature is establishing itself.
Here’s a quiz you can take to see how much YOU know about UNESCO World Heritage sites!
As you can see, visiting UNESCO World Heritage sites is a lot more than just a tourist activity. The thought, planning, and care that went into the making of each site reflects UNESCO’s goal of preserving heritage, culture, and making sure we spread our culture, knowledge, and natural beauty to future generations.
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