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The “double-edged sword” of UNESCO World Heritage status

The award of UNESCO World Heritage status has an enormous impact on sites of historic importance. World Heritage sites are tourist magnets, attracting millions of visitors each year, and generating huge revenue. Growing up in a World Heritage city, Bath, I have witnessed this first-hand: hordes of tourists, increased traffic, and regular restoration projects are standard in my home town. When considering World Heritage sites in the UK, it is difficult to see how UNESCO recognition can have anything other than a positive impact. Sometimes, it’s easy to forget that iconic tourist destinations, such as the Tower of London, have been allocated World Heritage status, as they are so well-kept that they hardly seem to require protection. However, this is not reflected globally. In fact, for some sites, World Heritage status has had a detrimental effect, both upon the sites themselves, and those who reside there.

The preservation of UNESCO sites is usually the work of governments, and as a result is intrinsically linked to economic, social, and political issues

The World Heritage seal awarded by UNESCO is deemed to guarantee the preservation of a site, but the journalist Simon Usbourne has argued that many within the conservation community are now convinced that UNESCO is failing to uphold this responsibility. The preservation of UNESCO sites is usually the work of governments, and as a result is intrinsically linked to economic, social, and political issues. Chloé Maurel, a historian specialising in the history of the United Nations, argues that the UN could be accused of imposing a Western vision of heritage on countries in the Global South, and that it is for this reason that World Heritage status often has a damaging impact. Therefore, when considering World Heritage sites, it is important to recognise the disparity between the way in which the heritage industry is governed in the ‘Western World’, and the way in which sites of historic import can be exploited to garner economic success.

Whilst the acquisition of UNESCO World Heritage status can have a dramatic impact on a particular site and its inhabitants, UNESCO can only protect those sites which are nominated by the government of their country. For some countries, having a World Heritage site can dramatically improve their economic situation, and obtaining UNESCO recognition for a historic site is of paramount importance. Once the stamp of approval has been awarded, the impact is immense. Angkor Wat, an important archaeological site in Cambodia, was awarded World Heritage status in 1992, and the number of visitors has increased by over 300% since then. Whilst this has reaped huge economic benefits, the sheer number of tourists descending on Angkor Wat has led to severe wear and tear to the site. In order to accommodate this new influx of visitors, huge hotels have been developed in the vicinity, and there have been no attempts to limit the number of tourists in order to protect the site. The focus of many governments whose countries contain World Heritage sites is to improve the economic situation of communities; as a result, cultural value is often diminished.

The sheer number of tourists descending on Angkor Wat has led to severe wear and tear to the site

In addition to damaging the sites themselves, World Heritage status can often negatively impact the local populations. For example, many of the locals of Luang Prabang in Laos have been forced to relocate, as the town itself has been altered to cater to the needs of tourists. Similarly, the poorest inhabitants of the historic Casco Viejo neighbourhood in Panama City have been pushed out of the central district to the city limits. Locals were forced out of their homes in favour of rich foreigners, as the neighbourhood was renovated in order to increase its appeal to tourists. Whilst bringing more tourists has a positive impact on the economic situation of World Heritage sites, it often negatively impacts those who reside within them.

I have seen the impact of tourism on a community in Bath. The revenue which tourists bring to Bath is often used for regeneration projects, but it is clear that this cannot always be the case worldwide. Whilst UNESCO is able to place certain sites on its World Heritage ‘In Danger’ list, there is not much to be done to protect the myriad of sites across the world from the day-to-day strain of tourism. Protection and conservation of historic sites is important, and the revenue generated by World Heritage status can be immense, but for some sites, international recognition can be a double-edged sword.

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