UNESCO World Heritage Sites and Our Responsibility as Travelers

Galapagos Sunset
Galapagos Islands, UNESCO site since 1978

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.

Petra Siq View
Petra, UNESCO site since 1985

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?

By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer.

8 thoughts on “UNESCO World Heritage Sites and Our Responsibility as Travelers”

  1. I like to recall the UNESCO sites I visited because I see them as a great accomplishment, a source of pride, I guess.

    But I also think that it is important for travelers to realize that these places might not be there forever and to enjoy them for what they are rather than a simple tick off a to-do list – exceptional constructions or outstanding beauty places, carefully selected for their grandeur by experts and that everyone should be able to see once, either on the television or for real.

    A lot of these places are already well known to the rest of the world, and this gets me wondering if the increasing popularity of the UNESCO sites are not going to actually ruin them in the future? Will their publicity destroy them?

  2. Preah Vihear! I think some attention is required there :) it is currently being used as a military encampment in the Thai-Cambodian border clash, where unfortunately it became damaged… I think local governments also need to understand the importance of these sights! They are part of world history, not just country history.

  3. Since I live on a small island, Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, where we have no less than two in such a small area, I’m very aware. We have the magnificent Teide National Park, a volcanic landscape like no other on earth, and the old, colonial capital of San Cristobal de La Laguna, which is full of history and interesting buildings. We’re so lucky to have two so close!

  4. There are a lot of UNESCO World heritage sites here in the Philippines. There are the baroque churches, the Rice Terraces, the Historic town of Vigan. Included also are the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park and The Subterranean River :)

    I’ve seen the churches, the town of Vigan and the river, they are all great, especially the river, very amazing and it’s so huge! :) I have yet to dive Tubbataha. You should come visit our country :)

    You’re right in saying that they should be treasured. When I go to the churches, it always makes me wonder who among the famous people in the past have heard mass there or what was it like before there were paved roads going to the church. Historical sites remind me of how we came to be and how it has defined our culture now.

  5. I recently went on holiday to Croatia. We visited the Plitvice Lakes National Park and I have to say I was absolutely breathtaken.
    Over 12 natural lakes created by rivers passing through limestone geology, all linked together by waterfalls. The colour of the water was overwhelming and you could see the purity of it in the rock that formed making the lakes a deep turquoise.

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