Unesco World Heritage panel ponders criteria, sustainability

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The 2008 inductees

Cultural sites:
Temple of Preah Vihear (Cambodia)
Fujian Tulou (China)
Stari Grad Plain (Croatia)
Historic center of Camaguey (Cuba)
Fortifications of Vauban (France)
Berlin Modernism Housing Estates (Germany)
Armenian Monastic Ensembles (Iran)
Baha'i Holy Places in Haifa and Western Galilee (Israel)
Mantua and Sabbioneta (Italy)
Sacred Mijikenda Kaya Forests (Kenya)
Melaka and George Town, historic cities of the Straits of Malacca (Malaysia)
Protective town of San Miguel and the Sanctuary of Jesus de Nazareno de Atotonilco (Mexico)
Le Morne Cultural Landscape (Mauritius)
Kuk early agricultural site (Papua New Guinea)
• San Marino historic center and Mount Titano (San Marino)
Archaeological site of Al-Hijr (Madain Salih) (Saudi Arabia)
Wooden Churches of the Slovak part of Carpathian Mountain Area (Slovakia)
Rhaetian Railway in the Albula/Bernina Cultural Landscape (Switzerland and Italy)
Chief Roi Mata's Domain (Vanuatu)

Natural properties:
Joggins Fossil Cliffs (Canada)
Mount Sanqing National Park (China)
Lagoons of New Caledonia: Reef Diversity and Associated Ecosystems (France)
Surtsey (Iceland)
Saryarka -- Steppe and lakes of northern Kazakhstan (Kazakhstan)
Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve (Mexico)
Swiss Tectonic Arena Sardona (Switzerland)
• Socotra Archipelago (Yemen)

ASIA-081808sitesLast month, Unesco's World Heritage Committee added 27 sites to its World Heritage list, bringing the total number of sites to 878. As the list nears 1,000, a natural questions arises: Is the organization at risk of adding too many sites to a category once reserved for only the most awe-inspiring?

"I think we still have 10 or 15 years before we start saying we are saturated," said Francesco Bandarin, director of the Unesco World Heritage Centre. (Unesco is the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.)

But Bandarin noted that the World Heritage Committee, which meets yearly to determine which sites to add to the list, is starting to address the growth rate. This year, for the first time, the committee set forth plans for a conference to discuss how the initiative will continue to develop in the 21st century.

Adding sites to the World Heritage list is a formal process. There are 185 state parties that have signed the World Heritage Convention, a 1972 document dedicating members to the preservation of cultural and natural sites. The parties can submit nominations to the World Heritage Committee.

EUR-081808sitesTo be considered for the World Heritage list, sites must be of "outstanding universal value" and meet at least one of 10 criteria, which include qualities such as being a masterpiece of human creative genius; bearing exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared; or containing remarkable natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance. Experts and specialized institutions weigh in on the nominations.

Bandarin said many new sites were in countries that joined the convention relatively recently. Europe and North America, for example, have the greatest number of sites, with 435, while Africa has only 76 and the Arab states have 65.

"European countries have been there since the beginning [of the program], so they've had more time. But many countries, in Africa, South America, Asia, China, they are still proposing," Bandarin said.

For example, Papua New Guinea, San Marino, Saudi Arabia and Vanuatu all had sites added for the first time this year.

Advantages to being on the list range from increased protection to greater funding. But Unesco continues to face a catch-22: Once added to the list, sites chosen for their need for protection attract attention and thus increased visitor traffic, which in turn can threaten their preservation.

MEX-081808sites"It's a big issue," Bandarin said. "In the past 10 years, we have always required a very detailed natural plan for the site that includes the tourist impact. Tourists are delivered at a much faster rate than Unesco can cope with them. But there is also an increasing awareness in the tourism industry that some kind of credibility has to be established; otherwise they will spoil their own assets."

For instance, the United Nations Foundation, Expedia Inc. and the World Heritage Centre have founded a Friends of World Heritage campaign to encourage tourists to travel responsibly, to raise awareness about protecting World Heritage sites and the surrounding communities and to promote sustainable development and responsible travel in and around the sites.

Undoubtedly, having the stamp of a Unesco World Heritage site is a marketing tool wielded by destination marketing groups and operators alike.

In a press release dated a day earlier than the Unesco release revealing the new sites, the Mexico Tourism Board was touting that country's two new sites, which brought Mexico's total to 29.

"Mexico now places third in the world for their amount of World Heritage sites, after Spain and Italy," the release trumpeted. The board took the opportunity to detail characteristics of the two newly inducted sites: the town of San Miguel el Grande and the Sanctuary of Jesus de Nazareno de Atotonilco, in San Miguel Allende, Guanajuato; and the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in central Mexico.

CHI-081808sites"Of course there is a lot of interest in terms of international business, because sites that are listed on the World Heritage list get a lot of publicity," Bandarin said. "Although we don't have a scientific base, [we have seen that] there is good return in terms of public awareness and interest of the tourists. There is a tourist business or component in the process."

But while destination marketing organizations would love to get as many sites on the list as possible, Bandarin said there were limits on how much pressure they can place on Unesco. Inevitably, the sites will speak for themselves, he said.

Despite the challenges inherent in driving interest sustainably, Bandarin believes that what the World Heritage Centre is trying to achieve is ultimately a positive thing for global destinations.

"Being on the World Heritage list is an additional layer of protection," he said. "Whenever there is a problem, we jump on the situation. I won't say that we're going to save the world, but we've been rather successful in many instances. For example, stopping projects, blocking infrastructures. In fact, most of our work is ... once the sites are on the list to really ensure that the criteria stand and the international standards of preservation are respected."

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