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Hot topic: is UNESCO status worth having in 2021?

With Liverpool recently stripped of its UNESCO world heritage site status, we look at how a designation impacts Sites around the globe. 

Liverpool’s Pier Head, completed in 1911, with the striking Museum of Liverpool, which opened in 2011, on the left. 

Photograph by Getty Images
Published 28 Sept 2021, 06:05 BST, Updated 30 Sept 2021, 10:06 BST

The prestige associated with a UNESCO listing boosts visitor revenue and renews commitment to local investment. But a designation also comes with certain requirements — the home nation must commit to conserving its UNESCO locations, such treasured tourism spots as Angkor Wat, Machu Picchu and the Taj Mahal. Is this a golden ticket to tourism spend or a restrictive badge of honour?

Regeneration vs preservation

Liverpool was inscribed by UNESCO in 2004 in recognition of its unique maritime mercantile architecture and history. But waterfront development has seen ‘the irreversible loss of attributes’ according to UNESCO, which cites the Liverpool Waters project (a 30-year plan to transform the city’s northern docks) and Everton’s new stadium (now under construction) as problematic. Liverpool Metro Mayor Steve Rotheram has noted that while the listing is important, “that doesn’t mean we should sit by and allow the city itself to become a museum.” Largely set on a formerly abandoned area of the docks, the new developments are seen by some as more valuable than a UNESCO listing in terms of bringing jobs and regeneration to the city. 

Where else is under threat?

Lately singled out as possible contenders for UNESCO’s ‘List of World Heritage in Danger’ are Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and Stonehenge, the latter due to plans for a nearby road tunnel that would ‘irreversibly damage an area of outstanding universal value’. UNESCO aims to bring global attention to the reasons behind the threats and encourage conservation and international assistance. In the case of the Great Barrier Reef: urgent action on the climate change behind its degenerating corals. The Galápagos Islands were thus listed in 2007 and the World Heritage Fund provided the Ecuadorian government with assistance. 
The islands were removed from the ‘in danger list’ in 2010.

What are the new additions to the list? 

Among the 34 new inscriptions for 2020/21 is the Slate Mining Landscape of northwest Wales, the fourth in the country, bringing the UK’s total to 33. The designation noted how the region’s quarries had ‘roofed the 19th-century world’, commending both the area’s natural landscape and its historic villages as having unique global importance. The Snowdonia region in which it sits has been reimagining itself in recent years as an adventure sports capital, with zip-lining, climbing and caving centres set in preserved quarries.

How do listings come about? 

Designation is given to sites deemed valuable for all humanity and that must be preserved for future generations. This ‘heritage’ is defined as cultural, environmental or a blend of both. New sites are added annually, with nominations taking an average of two years. With more than 1,000 sites worldwide, there’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. The nomination process is costly and critics note that many developing countries have sites of global importance that are worth listing but lack the funds to get nominated.

How are sites funded and protected?

Along with voluntary contributions, the 194 members of the World Heritage Convention supply funding. They also identify future inscriptions and monitor how existing ones are managed, hiring rangers, purchasing parkland, creating visitor centres and restoring buildings. If a site begins to lose its value, UNESCO signatory nations might assist with emergency aid campaigns. Relying on persuasive powers more than legal muscle, UNESCO has had high-profile successes such as helping to halt a highway near Egypt’s Giza Pyramids and cancelling a dam set for construction above Victoria Falls in Africa.  

Published in the October 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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