In an open square, a handful of vendors line a quiet street, selling local fruits and T-shirts. The open arches of Franciscan architecture and a monastery overlook the historic town. Mayan ruins are located not far from the town square.
This is the scene you would currently see in Izamal, Mexico, according to the New York Times.
However, this picturesque and serene town might be taking an entirely new shape in the near future if, as the Times speculates, it becomes a new United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization World Heritage site. But a spot on this list is a double-edged sword for many of these unique sites.
UNESCO’s World Heritage committee, comprises 21 nations and a World Heritage Fund, which provides loans and other assistance to World Heritage sites.
The organization’s goal is to protect and preserve culturally and naturally unique sites throughout the world.
But many are beginning to wonder if admittance to the World Heritage List sometimes has the opposite effect, particularly for developing countries. Once on the list, a site’s tourism industry usually increases dramatically.
Though increased tourism is particularly attractive to second and third-world countries, it does little to preserve a site’s historic and natural elements. In many cases, tourism has the opposite effect. Once five-star hotels are built and souvenir shops line the streets, formerly undisturbed towns can no longer be true to their culture.
With thousands of tourists exploring ancient ruins and other natural wonders every day, eventually our footprints will begin to take their toll.
While in Australia this past summer, I traveled to the Great Barrier Reef and witnessed how strangling tourism can be. Seventy-five-foot tour boats suffocated all the docks in Cairns. Even out on the water, other reef boats were always visible along the horizon. Also, Chinese and Japanese restaurants were everywhere; was I even in Australia anymore?
UNESCO is responsible. Its staff of only 35 people and average yearly fund of $4 million can do little to combat tourism and development problems in all 817 sites. Though one of UNESCO’s roles is to encourage locations to develop management plans for their World Heritage site, there is nothing that keeps these plans in check. Plus, the money that is in UNESCO’s World Heritage Fund is mostly from country donations.
In addition, some critics are wary of the amount of countries that have been added to the World Heritage List. When created in 1978, only 12 sites were listed. In less than 30 years, 805 more were added. By adding so many countries, these critics say the meaning of the World Heritage List is being watered down.
Unfortunately, it seems that there won’t be a slowing of the addition of sites in the near future. But as long as a balance between preservation and development becomes the premiere goal of UNESCO, the World Heritage List may continue to stand for protection and preservation.
In many countries, the balance between tourism and conservation has been achieved. One example is the Blue Mountains in Australia. This site, and particularly the “Three Sisters” rock formation, is well-known throughout the world and is one of the most visited tourist spots in Australia. Besides the several trails that run through the eucalypt forests, the rest of the wilderness is restricted to preserve the unique ecosystem.
The goal of UNESCO’s World Heritage sites is one of the most important challenges that we face. Though difficult to balance the thin line between preservation and economic development, the world mustn’t be careless. As long as UNESCO realizes the potential negatives of tourism and regulates development around these sites, they can still be preserved.
Morgan Ashenfelter can be reached at email@example.com.