This week, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, better known as UNESCO, is meeting in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, to debate and vote on the next batch of World Heritage Sites. Over the course of the last 38 years, UNESCO has granted nearly 1,000 sites World Heritage status.
In many cases, the designation of sites has allowed them to be kept open to the public and restored sensibly; however, in some cases, it seems like a site becoming a World Heritage Site has done more harm than good.
Last year, I wrote a more detailed piece explaining the problem I see with the World Heritage system as a whole. Essentially, my argument boils down to the fact that UNESCO grants World Heritage status, but does little to follow up to make sure that they sites are being managed properly.
It’s no wonder that countries want their landmarks designated as World Heritage Sites because it’s a huge boon for tourism. With the exception of very well-known places or hard to reach ones, a World Heritage labels ensures dramatically increased tourism and the money associated with it. While this is good for some, it can be damaging to local culture as more and more tourists come into town.
Even in places where UNESCO takes a more active management role, the effects of tourism can still be damaging. A great example of this is Luang Prabang in Laos.
Located on the banks of the Mekong River, Luang Prabang is one of the world’s most beautiful towns. Towering golden-roofed temples dot the landscape amid dozens of hotels, coffee shops, and Italian restaurants.
Each morning, local monks wake up at dawn, pull on their saffron robes, and make their way through the city streets collecting their food for the day from the faithful. Unfortunately, this ritual has been disturbed by tourists. Instead of watching peacefully from afar, snapping discreet pictures, many interrupt the peaceful scene by getting in the way. In fact, it’s gotten so bad that the monks threatened to quit the tradition.
The government didn’t step in to solve the problem, instead, they threatened to replace to monks with actors in an effort to keep the tradition up for tourists.
Of course, UNESCO isn’t directly responsible for this problem, but they did create it by designating the city a World Heritage Site without providing the necessary support to help the city manage the influx of tourism.
But, since this is our weekly discussion question, I want to know what you think. Am I way off base, or is UNESCO doing more harm than good and ruining our world heritage?
Let me know in the comments section below.