The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) was one of the first UN bodies to be created in the 1940s, and its roots can be traced back to the League of Nations in the 1920s. It wasn’t until the 1950s though that UNESCO started to evolve into the globally recognized body that it is today.
In 1954, Egypt announced plans to build the Aswan Dam and, in the process, flood a valley containing priceless Egyptian treasures. UNESCO launched a worldwide campaign to save these treasures, which it did, and a new mission was born. Following this, and other successful campaigns to save world treasures, UNESCO initiated a draft convention to protect the common cultural heritage of humanity.
This evolved into safeguarding natural treasures as well and in 1972, the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage was adopted by the General Conference of UNESCO.
As of 2010, 911 sites are listed: 704 cultural, 180 natural, and 27 mixed properties, in 151 member nations. There are ten selection criteria and nominated sites must be of “outstanding universal value” and meet at least one of the ten criteria.
The UNESCO program has saved scores of sites unique in the history of man and nature not just from violent destruction, but destruction from apathy and inattention. Without it, who knows how many sites and areas would have been lost to the fog of history.
But, like with so many tourist activities, for some people it has turned into another way to measure their travel accomplishments, boxes to tick off a sheet. While it’s not necessarily a bad thing to want to add a sense of mission and accomplishment to one’s travels, I just hope that the real benefit of visiting a UNESCO site isn’t lost on the average traveler.
What UNESCO has managed to do is to capture brief moments in world history, save them and hold them up to the bright light of day as an example of the best mankind has managed to produce. While not all have directly impacted world history, each one has contributed something to the great fabric of human civilization.
Human achievements aren’t the only ones recognized, nearly 200 natural wonders are also included in the list in a move that is one part recognition and one part conservation. Without this UNESCO designation, many of these pristine areas of natural brilliance would have been lost to overzealous commercial interests and lack of concern.
UNESCO sites should be treasured and visited for the experience they impart. These sites are remarkable for their ability to teach us all about the sometimes subtle impact various peoples have had on global history and tradition. Simply being designated a UNESCO site though isn’t enough, it is our responsibility as travelers to visit them, to promote them and make sure the countries in which they reside never forget their importance. It is a delicate balance for sure, but one that must be maintained.
What’s your favorite UNESCO World Heritage Site?