History of UNESCO and its World Heritage Sites
Whether you travel or not, chances are you’ve heard of UNESCO. But what really is UNESCO, how did it come to be and what really does it do? Here’s a little snapshot of this important organization and the worldwide impact it’s having on people and sites across the globe.
Based in Paris, France, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is a special agency of the United Nations. The organization focuses its efforts on programs in five major areas: education, natural sciences, social/human sciences, culture and communication/information. It was established in November of 1946 (although it emerged from the International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation established in Geneva under the League of Nations in 1922).
When it comes to travel, we are most familiar with UNESCO through its World Heritage Sites (established in 1972). This specific program seeks to encourage the identification, protection and preservation of cultural and natural heritage around the world. Specifically, those considered to be of outstanding value to humanity.
With these two focuses – preservation of cultural sites and conservation of nature – UNESCO works to protect identified sites and financially support those on the list that might be in danger.
So how does a cultural or natural site get added to the UNESCO World Heritage list? Countries that have signed the World Heritage Convention, pledging to protect their natural and cultural heritage, are allowed to submit nomination proposals for properties on their territory to be considered for inclusion in UNESCO’s World Heritage List. The organization has established a list of selection criteria. In order to be considered, the site must be of outstanding universal value and meet at least one out of 10 selection criteria.
Each year nominees are announced for consideration onto UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites. The World Heritage Committee reviews the nominations and determines which sites will be added to the list (after much evaluation, which might include field experts visiting the sites to see what is being done to preserve them, etc.). Here’s a list of the 2019 nominees. Among them are Vatnajökull National Park, Iceland; Babylon, Iraq; Prosecco Hills, Italy and Bagan, Myanmar.
The current list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, totally nearly 1,100 sites, consists of 1) Cultural Sites, including Angkor in Cambodia and the Old City of Dubrovnik in Croatia, 2) Natural Sites, such as Iguazu National Park in Argentina and the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, and 3) Mixed Sites including the Pyrenees – Mont Perdu in France and Tikal National Park in Guatemala.
Check out this complete listing of all those included.
Today, the World Heritage concept is so well understood that sites on the List are a magnet for international cooperation and may receive financial assistance for heritage conservation projects from a variety of sources. In some cases, sites are supported with a comprehensive management plan on preservation measures and how to monitor results.
And, it goes without saying that an inscription of a site on the World Heritage List brings an increase in public awareness of the site and of its outstanding values, impacting tourism at the site. If these activities follow and respect sustainable tourism principles, they can bring important funds to the site and to the local economy.
Protecting and preserving these global treasures continue to be a priority for UNESCO. So how are they doing? Read more about some of their tangible results and success stories.
Want to see how many UNESCO World Heritage Sites you’ve visited? Complete this checklist.