This summer, I witnessed several days of testimony from representatives of 100 nations about the longest-ever Unesco Endangered World Heritage List, irreplaceable destinations of outstanding cultural and natural value. In each case, the question was: Can we reverse the irreversible?
At the Copenhagen conference of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in December, industries will be engaging with governments of industrialized and emerging nations to face the emergency and adopt new practices. This will be no small feat, and the travel industry is gearing up.
Among the issues to be addressed are 32 endangered places, authentic, unique, irreplaceable world treasures in jeopardy of being lost forever. Can we imagine a world without ancient cities such as Jerusalem? Without the biodiversity of the Galapagos, rain forests or ocean reef systems?
The Unesco World Heritage Centre in Paris is working feverishly with advisory bodies to bring attention and resources to the rescue.
The travel industry and its rapid growth did not create endangered sites, yet as a driver of global economic prosperity, we are positioned to help.
The 32 properties that are endangered as defined by the Unesco Convention include 16 cultural sites and 16 natural sites in 25 diverse nations. More than a third are African sites in Egypt, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Ivory Coast, Senegal and the Congo. They are underserved, torn by war or overpoached. Other sites are somewhat threatened by tourism and modern development. These include the City of Jerusalem, the Galapagos Islands, Abu Mena, Dresden, the Elbe Valley and, most recently, the Barrier Reef of Belize, the largest barrier reef in the Northern Hemisphere.
As a tourism professional, I feel honored and privileged to have sailed in the Galapagos since 1978 (pre-cruise ships) and to have dived and snorkeled with more than 80 travel agency owners in the Great Blue Hole of the Belize Reef in 1994 and 1996. We hosted several exhilarating five-day sailings, full sails aloft in 25-knot winds, down the length of the reef while a team of naturalists educated us on the extraordinary biodiversity. I now feel such sadness that this special place might be irreversibly damaged.
Stepping up to the plate
Here in America, we are at the cusp of an endangered site: The Waterton Glacier National Park, a trans-border World Heritage Site shared with Canada, is now under Unesco and International Union for the Conservation of Nature missions to protect it from a similar fate.
Let us commend the governments, delegations, nonprofits and world conservationists within the U.N. framework for their implementation strategies. Nations such as Spain, Ecuador, Israel, Egypt, Peru, Australia and many others have stepped up despite budgetary challenges.
The U.S. delegation to Unesco, representing the National Park Service and State Department, is finishing its fourth term on the World Heritage Committee, along with 21 other of the 187 nations that have signed on to the Convention, which names and protects 890 sites.
The United Nations Foundation, founded in 1998 by Ted Turner, and Erika Harms, the executive director of its Sustainable Development Program, have many initiatives and new best-practice examples of public-private partnerships worthy of support.
For example, the UNF has partnered with the Belize Tourism Authority, the Nature Conservancy and the World Heritage Centre to provide immediate aid -- "just one example of how quickly we can collaborate to reverse the irreversible," says Art Pedersen of the WHC. "With today's resources, we can provide the potential perfect solution vs. perfect storm, unilateral, cross-cultural collaboration. We need more tourism companies and local stakeholders."
Learn and support
Our industry is the world's largest employer, with more than 260 million people like yourself who have made travel a career.
There is a global plan. It is audacious, innovative and progressive. I hope you can resist turning away or supporting business as usual, as tempting as that might be for those who believe it is too costly, too disruptive or too unsettling to make new choices. There really is no other choice. I urge you as members of the American travel industry to lend your support.
To learn more, visit www.unesco.org or www.unfoundation.org. To be directly involved in World Heritage Sites, pledge or become a member, visit www.worldheritagealliance.org or www.friendsofworldheritage.org. The annual meeting is at Expedia headquarters in Bellevue, Wash., Oct. 7 to 9. Leading travel companies will be attending.
As always, your view, your voice and your opinion count.
Robin Tauck is an owner and former CEO of Tauck World Discovery; R. Tauck & Partners engages global travel and policy leaders on sustainability. Email RT&P at [email protected].