Monday, July 15

Overview of heritage tourism and UNESCO impact

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Our cultural and natural heritage are both irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) seeks to encourage the identification, protection and preservation of cultural and natural heritage around the world considered to be of outstanding value to humanity. 

This is embodied in an international treaty called the Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, adopted by UNESCO in 1972.  World Heritage sites belong to all the peoples of the world, irrespective of the territory on which they are located.

Today, 195 countries adhere to the World Heritage Convention, as it is commonly known, and have become part of an international community united in a common mission to identify and safeguard the world’s most significant natural and cultural heritage.

The Convention is unique in that it links together the concept of nature conservation and the preservation of cultural sites. Strongly emphasising the role of local communities, the Convention serves as an effective tool in addressing climate change, rapid urbanisation, mass tourism, sustainable socio-economic development and natural disasters and other contemporary challenges.

Every year, new sites earn World Heritage status. In 2023, UNESCO inscribed 45 of them. These included Viking-age ring fortresses in Denmark, the Andrefana dry forests of Madagascar, and a striking network of karst and cave systems in Italy. It brought the total number of heritage locations to 1,199 in 168 countries.

Europe and North America host the lion’s share, with 565 sites. Asia and the Pacific have the second largest number, with 289. Latin America and the Caribbean are home to 149, Africa has 103 heritage sites, and the Arab States have 93.

Defining and Protecting World Heritage

Each World Heritage listing falls into one of three categories: cultural, natural or mixed. Examples of cultural heritage included ancient buildings, historic towns, prominent archaeological sites, and even works of art. 

Natural heritage locations may showcase rare or outstandingly beautiful natural phenomena or be home to endangered fauna and flora.

Mixed sites, which contain elements of both cultural and natural heritage, are by far the least common type of listing.

Regardless of location or category, every World Heritage location has something in common. They’re deemed of “outstanding universal value” and meet at least one of 10 criteria for selection. They may “represent a masterpiece of human creative genius,” for instance, or “be an outstanding example of a type of building…which illustrates significant stage(s) in human history.” As a result, they are considered worth celebrating and protecting for future generations.

Nonetheless, many are at risk. The List of World Heritage in Danger contains 56 locations, including Abu Mena in Egypt and Palmyra in the Syrian Arab Republic. Being added to this list means the World Heritage Committee can issue immediate financial support to the site from the World Heritage Fund.

Future generations aren’t the only beneficiaries of identifying and protecting UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Earning the title brings international recognition that delivers a sizable economic boost.

A recent study in Italy found that the UNESCO designation increased income per capita by more than two per cent. Property prices were similarly impacted, with luxury dwellings in urban areas climbing more than 10 per cent in value.

According to the authors, money enters local economies in two primary ways. One is via a “gentrification channel,” whereby demand for housing increases among “affluent individuals attracted by the amenity value of World Heritage List sites.”

Heritage tourism was a $557 billion industry in 2021, and it is expected to grow by 3.8 per cent annually until 2030. Market intelligence company, My Travel Research, describes heritage visitors as “high-yield” tourists who spend more daily and stay longer than other travellers.

This industry is a significant source of employment, too. Culture and heritage tourism directly supports more than 50 million jobs in Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) countries alone.


Yet, UNESCO’s endorsement can also have drawbacks. By putting these locations on the proverbial map, it can lead to eventual overtourism and commercialisation. In an oft-cited 2014 essay in the New Left Review, Italian journalist, Marco D’Eramo, calls this Unescocide and describes receiving a World Heritage listing as “the kiss of death.”

Countries With Most World Heritage Sites

With 59 heritage locations, Italy now has the most UNESCO sites on the planet. Some are infamous, such as Venice and its lagoon. Another is the historic centre of Rome, which has some of the best things to do in Bel Paese. Others are less well-known, including the medieval Castel del Monte or the Villa d’Este in Tivoli.

China is home to the second-largest number of UNESCO sites. It currently has 57 in total, including four mixed heritage locations. Among the most notable is the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor, which contains the famous terracotta warriors.

France and Germany share third place, with 52 heritage locations each. Spain has 50 properties inscribed on the World Heritage List, putting it in fourth place. Next is India, with 42, followed by Mexico, with 35, and then the United Kingdom, which has 33.

The Russian Federation now has 31 UNESCO sites, Iran boasts 27, and Japan and the United States of America both have 25.

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