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What Exactly Is a UNESCO World Heritage Site Anyway?

On many Country Walkers trips, we visit UNESCO World Heritage sites—places of exceptionally important cultural, scientific or natural significance. These sites range from spectacular areas of natural beauty (such as Australia’s Blue Mountains) to historic city centers (such as Valparaíso in Chile) and spectacular age-old structures (such as the temple of Todai-ji in Japan). But while we can all agree these places are special, it doesn’t explain what the title actually means. Guests often ask us: is the title an empty honorific? Does it have implications for how a site is managed? What exactly does it take to receive the designation, anyway?

First off, it’s important to know that UNESCO actually stands for “United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization”—a branch of the UN based in Paris and focused on fostering peace and justice through the furthering of intellectual collaboration between countries. The organization began its program of conserving “World Heritage” sites through the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World’s Cultural and Natural Heritage of 1972. This document has been ratified by 193 countries, making it one of the most widely recognized international agreements. Its list of 1,073 sites is thus an attempt to conserve and protect sites of outstanding importance to our shared culture—a declaration of common ground and a call to higher ideals. UNESCO World Heritage sites are legally protected by international treaties and also subject to UN funding…meaning the plaudit is much more than just a flashy title.

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; to be named a World Heritage site, the nomination must meet at least one.

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.

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