Taj Mahal

How do you decide where to go? With so much to see, wouldn’t it be nice if someone identified the places that really matter, the gems of art and architecture, the truly unique places that define the best of what nature and humans have created on the planet? The list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites does just that.

The 981 items on the list are divided into cultural sites (759) – things like the temples at Angkor, the Taj Mahal and Great Zimbabwe, natural sites (193) such as Ha Long Bay and the Monarch Butterfly Reserve and 29 mixed sites (like Machu Pichu).

Henrik Bennetsen's photo of one the best of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

The Taj Mahal was rated as the best World Heritage Site in a Tripadvisor survey of travelers. Photo by Henrik Bennetsen.

Auspicious Beginnings – Saving Abu Simbel

Abu Simbel was possibly the most impressive thing I saw in Egypt.  Like other monuments, it was BIG. And like so many in Egypt, it bore the image of Ramesses II, perhaps history’s greatest egomaniac.  Unlike other ruins I had seen, this one had been picked up and moved.  Not just a small piece carried off to some far away museum.  The whole mountain had been relocated.  Standing below Ramesses’ big toe, I was awed.  Which was more amazing, that people could build something this big, or that they could move it?

It was not faith that moved this mountain.  It was a combination of money- about $80 million, and political will (though maybe that’s what faith is?). In 1954, the government of Egypt decided to build the Aswan High Dam.  Doing so would create Lake Nasser, a huge reservoir in place always in need of more water.  But it would also submerge the temples of Abu Simbel.  UNESCO launched a massive campaign to save the temples, and in 1968, through successful fundraising and the marvels of modern engineering  these fantastic temples, carved into the sides of mountain, were moved to higher ground.

tengri555's photo of Abu Simbel.

Abu Simbel after the Big Move. Photo by tengri555.

Other safeguarding campaigns followed on the heels of that success, eventually evolving into a convention to protect humanity’s cultural heritage.  Protecting our collective heritage is a lofty and worthy goal.  It also makes for a nice list of top notch travel destinations.

How the List of UNESCO World Heritage Sites Works

and How It Doesn’t

Getting on The List: Countries prepare Tentative Lists of properties of they consider to be of outstanding cultural or natural importance.  Only properties which are included on the Tentative List can be nominated.  Once nominated, the World Heritage Committee decides whether or not to add the site to the list.

The country with the most UNESCO World Heritage Sites is Italy.  What with the Roman Empire and being the birthplace of the Renaissance, it’s easy to understand.  But a quick glance shows a list which seems to little lopsided- a disproportionate number of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites are in Europe.  Now UNESCO is trying to  broaden its definition and achieve more global balance.

The Down Side: There is a downside to identifying the best examples of our human heritage. Being on the list brings more tourists. That’s the dilemma with trying to protect something.  It takes money, which take publicity, which makes people want to go there, which changes the very thing you were trying to protect. Shit. Hoi An, Viet Nam and Ping Yao, Chinawere both absolutely dripping with charm, but they annoyed me a bit.  Hoi An had an elaborate ticket system that allowed you to see some of the sites, but not others, unless you were willing to pay for all of them twice.  How does that help protect their cultural heritage? If they really wanted to protect their beautiful downtown, why didn’t they limit the number of motorbikes? I enjoyed Luang Prabang, but the obvious gentrification made things seem less authentic.

So do we know if it’s working, if places on the list and better protected than they might be otherwise? Yes and no.  While UNESCO does have a process for monitoring, perhaps the most useful information comes from National Geographic, who periodically rank how well the sites are being conserved.  (I’m pleased to say that my home city of Guanajuato ranked as one of the best in the 2006 National Geographic ranking.)  Bottom line is that success varies, some sites are being preserved quite well, others not so much.

Gustavo Madico's photo of Ping Yao, one of China's many UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Ancient walled-city of Ping Yao. One of China’s 45 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Photo by Gustavo Madico.

UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Danger

The list also identifies sites that are in danger.  If touring the masterpieces of our collective cultural heritage made you feel proud to be a human being, this sub-list is sure to bring you right down.  War and/or environmental degradation threaten these marvelous places.  It’s humbling and sad to acknowledge that humans can create and appreciate such beauty, but may not be able to preserve it.  It’s pretty hard right now to feel optimistic about the Syrian city of Aleppo, or the Florida Everglades.

Robert Neff's photo of the Everglades.

Everglades National Park. Photo by Robert Neff.

So there you have it – another thousand places you need to visit!

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