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June 19, 2013

Discuss: Is UNESCO Ruining Our World Heritage?

The monks of Luang Prabang complete their morning alm ritual.

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.


  1. I think it’s the government’s fault if they aren’t willing to help with preservation. I understand in some areas they may simply not have the resources available, but it should at least be a goal. The situation in Laos is ridiculous – the government seems to value tourists more then the locals, and that can never end well.

    • You’re right. Governments do share some of the blame for not managing World Heritage Sites properly. However, do you expect a country like Laos to understand the balance of preservation versus tourism?

  2. Wax on, Daniel-san

    Conflating mass tourism with World Heritage designation is dangerous. It ignores the work that goes into protecting sites and the invaluable access to heritage conservation resources that most countries would otherwise lack.

    Mass tourism is indeed very disruptive and comes often with many negative effects. The increased recognition that World Heritage designation infers certainly leads to greater awareness of a site and an uptick in tourist arrivals. It does not, however, lead to mass tourism as you contend.

    The city of Paris is a good example of this fact. With hour-long queues for the Eiffel Tower and roving school-trip hoards, mass tourism has existed in Paris for decades. Yet World Heritage designation for the Paris, Banks of the Seine site came only in 1991. Inscription did not lead to a huge surge in tourist arrivals. Year-on-year tourist arrivals did increase, but only at rates similar to previous-year increases. In fact, tourist arrivals to Paris have been decreasing since 2006 – nearly one quarter of the total time the site has been listed.
    Most of the first sites listed, such as Florence or the Grand Canyon, were mass tourism pilgrimages long before the advent of the notion of world heritage.

    You rightly point out that Angkor Wat has experienced a huge surge in the number of tourist arrivals since its inscription in 1992. Angkor is an internationally famous site that was closed to tourism for more than thirty years. An analogous situation is beginning to develop at the Temples of Bagan, in Burma. After decades of being shut to the world, the easing of travel restrictions in recent years has hugely increased tourist arrivals, leading to disruptions in the local way of life, touting, and an overreliance on the tourist trade. Yet the Temples of Bagan are not a World Heritage site.

    Quite a number of sites have been on the list for many years, but have only become overpopular with the recent advent of low-cost air travel, such as Kraków, Poland (added in 1978), Dubrovnik, Croatia (added in 1979) or the Taj Mahal (added in 1983).

    Ultimately, it is important to underline that UNESCO in no way profits or benefits from World Heritage listings. UNESCO does not nominate sites, States do. It is the responsibility of the State to manage (or not manage, as the case may be) the site. UNESCO is there to provide technical assistance, support and advice.

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