Image: Fujian Tulou
UNESCO / Liu Fenq
Fujian Tulou (China), 46 multi-storey earthen houses built between the 12th and 20th centuries over 120 km in south-west of Fujian province. They house up to 800 people each. Built for defence purposes, they were called "a little kingdom for the family" or "bustling small city."
By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 7/9/2008 1:01:00 PM ET 2008-07-09T17:01:00

World heritage is a terrible thing to waste.

Fortunately, for 27 places around the globe, that shouldn’t be an issue as they’ve just been added to UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites. Named during the organization’s World Heritage Committee meeting, now taking place in Quebec City, they’re the latest additions to a roster that recognizes places with outstanding natural or cultural value.

Among the new additions:

  • The Nabataean archeological site of Al-Hijr in Saudi Arabia, a collection of more than 100 monumental tombs and other edifices dating from the 1st century B.C. to the 1st century A.D.
  • The Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in Mexico, a 56,000-hectare site in the mountains northwest of Mexico City that serves as the overwintering site for up to 1 billion butterflies from throughout North America.
  • Surtsey, a “new” island approximately 30 kilometers south of Iceland that was formed by volcanic eruptions between 1963 and 1967 and now serves as a pristine natural laboratory for the study of plant and animal colonization.

With the new additions, the World Heritage List now includes 878 sites — 679 cultural, 174 natural and 25 mixed — in 145 countries. Some are world famous, others easily missed, yet each in its own way highlights the delicate balance between preserving special places and promoting them.

The U.S. experience
In the U.S., which is home to 20 sites (two co-managed with Canada), no new sites have been added to the list since Carlsbad Caverns and Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park were inscribed in 1995. Unfortunately, that was also the year that a proposed gold mine near Yellowstone landed the park on UNESCO’s World Heritage in Danger list; the resulting controversy essentially put the kibosh on subsequent nominations.

At least until January of this year, when the government announced a new list of 14 tentative sites, which will be used a guide for future submissions. “We’re working on two possible nominations for 2010,” says Stephen Morris, chief of the Office of International Affairs of the National Park Service (NPS). “It’s not something you can whip out over a weekend.”

The first nominees will likely be Mount Vernon, George Washington’s longtime home, and Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, a string of islands, reefs and atolls that extends northwest from Kauai. Others on the tentative list include the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia, Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks in Ohio and several civil rights sites in Alabama.

“The criteria for the World Heritage List is evolving,” says Dave Harmon, executive director of the George Wright Society, the non-profit heritage association that helped the Park Service develop its list. “The Hopewell Earthworks may not have the visual oomph of the Grand Canyon, but archeologically, it’s enormously significant.”

Preservation is no panacea
Unfortunately, inscription is no guarantee of protection. Listing may bring more visibility and an international profile, says Morris, and developing countries hungry for tourism revenue may not be able to handle the influx: “Angkor Wat, the Galapagos, Machu Picchu — they’ve all seen massive increases in visitation.”

The Galapagos Islands, in fact, was put on UNESCO’s other, lesser-known list — the List of World Heritage in Danger — last year in response to the steady influx of visitors and the invasive species and tourism-related immigration that followed in their wake. Several sites, including Machu Picchu and Timbuktu, Mali, were considered for inclusion this year, although none were added.

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Still, that raises the age-old question: How do you balance preservation and promotion? How do you resolve the paradox that tourism is both a blessing and a curse and that even the most well-intentioned travel takes a toll? Are there, as author Patricia Schultz put it, “1,000 Places to See Before You Die,” and if so, how many will survive after millions of people tromp through them?

Securing world heritage through sustainable travel
The best-case answer is one that involves a combination of legal protection (e.g., World Heritage Site status), local planning (e.g., managed growth), and a personal commitment to responsible travel. “[Tourists are] are going to come,” says Erika Harms, executive director of sustainable development at the United Nations Foundation. “The challenge is how do we use tourism wisely to preserve these places.”

To that end, the foundation joined forces with Expedia.com in 2005 founding the World Heritage Alliance to educate travelers, engage the travel industry and support sustainable development in communities near World Heritage Sites. Since then, the group has raised $200,000 (including matching funds) from World Heritage trips booked through Expedia and invested more than $2 million in in-kind resources in and around nine World Heritage sites.

After all, conferring World Heritage status is just the beginning. “We’ve been inscribing new sites for 30 years,” says Morris of the NPS. “That needs to shift to how do we manage and protect them and make sure they remain in good condition. It’s a challenge for everyone.”

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