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What Makes a World Heritage Site?

On many Country Walkers trips, we visit UNESCO World Heritage sites, places of exceptionally important cultural or natural significance. For instance, on Ireland: Connemara & Killarney Duo, we tour Killarney National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site and home to some of Ireland’s most treasured landscapes and priceless cultural touchstones. All five towns of the Cinque Terre, and the path that connects them, are a World Heritage site, as experienced in Italy: Cinque Terre. The unforgettable Galápagos Islands of Ecuador are also a World Heritage site, and when you join Ecuador: Galápagos Land-Based or Galápagos Islands Small Ship Cruising, you’ll immediately understand why this place has an important designation.

We can all agree these places are special, but what does it take to garner the esteemed designation of World Heritage site?

There is a formal process by which each site is nominated, evaluated, and eventually declared a World Heritage site. The process begins at the nomination level, and the host country must make an inventory of all of its important cultural and natural properties. These are then placed on what is called the ‘Tentative List’. The country then selects certain items from the Tentative List to go into the Nomination File, where the International Council on Monuments and Sites and the World Conservation Union evaluate it and can recommend it to the World Heritage Committee. The WHC evaluates each recommendation based on 10 criteria, and to be named a World Heritage site, the nomination must meet at least one of the 10 criteria.

For instance, a cultural site might “bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared.” A natural site might be “an outstanding example representing major stages of Earth’s history, including the record of life, significant on-going geological processes in the development of landforms, or significant geomorphic or physiographic features.”

The designation process is very prestigious, and especially competitive because the committee only meets once per year to decide on the fate of would-be World Heritage sites. If the committee doesn’t feel that it has enough information to make a decision, it can defer the recommendation another year.

There are 936 sites in the world that have the World Heritage site designation, and once named as such, the site is eligible for funding to help protect and conserve the special place. You can find an interactive map of all the sites here.

Have you been to a UNESCO World Heritage site, like the Old City of Quebec? Was it easy to understand why that particular place was deemed worth protecting? Let us know in the comments below.

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