On your bucket list of travel destinations, there are probably several United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage sites: the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania, Machu Picchu in Peru, or the fjords, rocky coasts and waterfalls of southwest New Zealand.
It’s no wonder that your list intersects with that of UNESCO’s. After all, the purpose of the World Heritage List was to identify our most beautiful places and unique customs and safeguard them against erosion and loss. Today, that list contains 962 properties noted for their “universal value to humanity.” Countries propose their own sites for inscription—which confers no funding but often promises a tourism boost. And therein lies a problem.
Nations will sometimes rush to nominate their places of natural beauty or their time-honored traditions in order to make money on them. Commerce and political considerations may drive such efforts, rather than conservation and education. In such cases, proper protocols are lacking to handle increased numbers of visitors. The unfortunate result is that we could literally be loving some of these spots to death.
When tourism harms
In 1972, 40 years ago, UNESCO developed an international convention to address two separate movements: the first focusing on the preservation of cultural sites and the second dealing with the conservation of nature. In 1978, the convention named its first set of 12 World Heritage sites, which included the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador and Yellowstone National Park in the United States. Today, for a place to be inscribed on the World Heritage site list, it must meet at least one of 10 selection criteria.
Because the World Heritage site designation is recognized worldwide, it naturally attracts the attention of tour operators, tourism developers and tourists. People have come to expect that seeing such places will provide them with a unique experience, and tour operators know the sites promise an easily promotable, almost fail-proof and profitable destination to bring visitors to. On the one hand, then, list inclusion has the potential to bring about economic benefits that support a site’s conservation and the local/national economy; but on the other, uncontrolled, poorly managed tourist traffic may have severe consequences for a place’s integrity and compromise its outstanding universal value.
The Galapagos Islands are a case in point. Their inclusion on the World Heritage List in 1978 brought a rapid increase in visitors. In response, the number of tour operators grew substantially, and burgeoning tour options and activities put people in areas of the islands that were previously off-limits. Hotel construction skyrocketed. Migration from mainland Ecuador jumped, as people sought jobs in the tourism industry. This put additional pressure on the islands’ resources and caused a growth in urbanization and social-issue problems. Soon, invasive species, insufficient waste management tactics and pollution took their toll on native flora and fauna. By 2007, the Galapagos Islands had been put on the World Heritage in Danger List. (They were taken off in 2010.)
The Belize Barrier Reef System (BBRS) suffered a similar history. Despite strong concerns from the World Heritage Committee, land within the property was leased for tourism and real estate development. Mangrove cutting and coral dredging followed until unsustainable levels were reached. The BBRS was put on the World Heritage in Danger List in 2009. The Taj Mahal, the Great Wall of China, the Venice lagoons and the Grand Canyon have also been on the danger list at one time or another.
But more often than not, tourism dollars are vital for managing World Heritage sites and for conservation and monitoring activities. They also sustain local economies, create much-needed jobs and grow a sense of pride in home regions.
Today in the Galapagos Islands, for instance, a partnership between the national park, the Charles Darwin Research Station and private tour operators allows tourists to see and hear firsthand the alarming facts about the impacts of human activity on the islands’ flora and fauna, and visitors leave knowing their tourist taxes are going to a good cause.
In 2006, the National Geographic Society’s Center for Sustainable Destinations did a study ranking the world’s top natural and cultural treasures. They found that the highest scorers have one thing in common: a local community committed to preserving its priceless landmark. Those with heavy tourist traffic still scored well.
So, celebrate—guilt-free—40 years of conserving our most treasured places by planning a visit to one or two of UNESCO’s World Heritage sites. While you’re there, consider this: From what you can observe, did inscribing this place on the list help protect it? How many of the sites have you visited?
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,