November 28, 2023

Inclusion on the UNESCO World Heritage List often brings worldwide recognition, tourist income and access to international finance and expertise.

But there are conditions.

World Heritage sites are in principle inscribed “forever,” said Mechtild Rossler, director of the UNESCO World Heritage Center, but countries must do their part to protect and counter threats to the sites. This includes the agreement not to change the websites significantly.

Failure to comply can lead to “delisting”, a fate that has only happened to two World Heritage sites so far.

Inclusion on the World Heritage List

The process to be included on the World Heritage List is taking years, Rossler said, adding that several sites have waited about 25 years to be included on the prestigious list.

Only countries that ratify the World Heritage Convention (adopted by UNESCO in 1972) can add sites on their territory to the list. Currently referred to as “States Parties”, there are currently 194 around the world.

The World Heritage Convention put forward the idea that the loss of cultural and natural heritage – like the Afghan Buddhas of Bamiyan, destroyed by the Taliban in 2001 – harmed “all nations of the world”.

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Websites must be put on a “tentative list” before they can be officially nominated. The World Heritage Committee, made up of representatives from 21 contracting states, meets once a year to decide which sites are nominated to be included in the World Heritage List.

To be accepted, websites must be of “outstanding universal value” and meet at least one of 10 criteria, such as: B. “A Masterpiece of Human Creative Genius” or “Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty”.

Some states parties do not have a World Heritage Site within their borders, including Kuwait, Maldives, Monaco, Rwanda, and Bhutan (shown here).

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There are currently 1,121 sites on the World Heritage List, of which 869 are cultural, 213 natural and 39 are mixed.

First a warning

If sites violate the UNESCO protocols, the countries receive a warning letter.

This happened to Peru, which has received multiple warnings of threats from overtourism, landslides and floods in Machu Picchu.

Alerts were also sent to Saint Petersburg, Russia, which resulted in the construction of the Gazprom Tower being 9 kilometers from the city center, Rossler said.

Rossler said she received 30,000 hard copy letters – so many “I couldn’t even enter my office” – asking for help to protect Mexico’s El Vizcaino whale sanctuary from plans to build a huge salt factory nearby.

It is “one of the largest gray whale whale sanctuaries we have on earth,” said Rossler, who described how he led a mission to the site. “Six months later, the Mexican President – just introduce yourself, the President – decided to stop. It was of course a great celebration, we jumped up and down.”

To be added to the ‘Hazard List’

Many websites adhere to it during the warning phase, Rossler said, but not all.

At this point, UNESCO organizes a site mission and presents its results to the World Heritage Committee, which makes the decision to put a site on UNESCO’s “List of World Heritage in Danger” – often referred to simply as the “list of hazards”.

Decisions about the hazard list are “a matter for the committee … it is not UNESCO,” said Mechtild Rossler, director of the UNESCO World Heritage Center, which was shown here at the 40th session of the World Heritage Committee on July 11, 2016 in Istanbul, Turkey .

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There are currently 53 World Heritage sites on the list of threats, including the historic center of Vienna and the Old City (and walls) of Jerusalem, as well as all World Heritage sites in Syria, Libya and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

In accordance with Article 11 (4) of the World Heritage Convention, the list includes places “at risk of serious and specific dangers”, such as armed conflict, construction work, natural disasters or the deterioration or abandonment of the land.

Places can be removed from the list of dangers, as happened in 2019 at Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity (viewed by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus).

“The list of hazards is actually a call to action for all of us … it tries to help the country.

Mechtild Rossler

Director of the UNESCO World Heritage Center

Governments often oppose adding sites to the hazard list because they fear it could harm tourism, Rossler said. That happened in the Galapagos Islands, where the authorities “worked very hard” to counter the threats to the region. The site was removed from the list of hazards in 2010.

“Another example is Kathmandu in Nepal”, which UNESCO put on the list after two devastating earthquakes in 2015. “You did a lot of lobbying in the World Heritage Committee to avoid getting on the list of dangers.”

According to Rossler, some countries confuse the list with “blackmail”. “They see it as a red list,” she told CNBC.

But “the list of dangers is actually a call to action for all of us … it tries to help the country,” she said.

UNESCO counts Dubrovnik, Croatia, among its success stories. Dubrovnik was removed from the list of dangers in 1998 after the walled part of the city’s “old town” was repaired in the early 1990s from damage caused by armed conflict with Yugoslav forces.

However, the location was back in UNESCO’s crosshairs after the HBO series “Game of Thrones” triggered a flood of tourism. After the cultural heritage status was threatened, Dubrovnik was able to limit the number of cruise tourists to 5,000 per day in 2019, according to local media.

UNESCO recently turned down plans to build an amusement park outside of the Angkor temple complex in Cambodia, Rossler said, because “all developments inside and outside” World Heritage sites must be managed in such a way that they are preserved for future generations.


Rossler said UNESCO’s Sustainable Tourism Program is working with tour operators like cruise lines “to help them understand better that they shouldn’t be coming … with 4,000 passengers and all in a small town” like Dubrovnik or Tallinn, Estonia.

Sometimes “cruise passengers don’t even know where the hell they are,” laughed Rossler, who said she knew this from talking to local tourists.

The ultimate punishment: delisting

So far, only two World Heritage sites have been delisted, a decision Rossler describes as a failure not of the site but of the international community.

“It is the international community that has to take responsibility and we have failed twice,” she said.

1. The Arabian oryx sanctuary (Oman)

This shelter contained the first free range herd of Arabian oryx since the animals became extinct in the wild in 1972, according to UNESCO.

The Arabian Oryx Sanctuary is still on the UNESCO World Heritage Site, although it is clearly highlighted by the name of the site.

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The site was inscribed in 1994 and two years later it was home to about 450 Arabian oryx. By the 2000s, only 65 – and four breeding pairs – were left due to poaching and habitat loss.

Oman wanted to continue oil and gas exploration, Rossler said, and when the sanctuary was significantly reduced in size, it was delisted from the World Heritage Committee in 2007.

2. The Dresden Elbe Valley (Germany)

This 18 km long stretch of landscape became a World Heritage Site in 2004 due to the mixture of baroque architecture and relics from the industrial revolution, in particular the Blue Wonder steel bridge from the 19th century.

However, it was another bridge that led to the site’s undoing.

The controversial Waldschlosschen Bridge divided the residents and communities during construction and ultimately led to the area losing the status of a World Heritage Site.

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“The city, not the country … has decided to build a four-lane bridge in the middle of the site,” Rossler told CNBC. “The World Heritage Committee said ‘no’ and … they went ahead against the will of the central government.”

The World Heritage Committee delisted the site in 2009 after the construction of the Waldschlosschen Bridge was in full swing.

“The international community couldn’t save the website, and we don’t want to see that anymore,” said Rossler, calling the case “one of the most difficult in my entire career because it was in my own country, Germany.” ”

A partial delisting

Another world heritage site, the Georgian Bagrati Cathedral and Gelati Monastery, has been partially delisted.

Both buildings, enrolled in 1994 and located 6 miles apart in Kutaisi, Georgia, were put on the hazard list in 2010 after the committee objected to rebuilding work at Bagrati Cathedral that “undermines the site’s integrity and authenticity “would be on the UNESCO website.

The Georgian Bagrati Cathedral is no longer a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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The Gelati Monastery was removed from the list of dangers in 2017, but the world heritage borders were redrawn to exclude the Bagrati Cathedral.

Could another site be delisted soon?

“It could happen for Liverpool,” said Rossler.

Liverpool Maritime Mercantile City is currently on the list of hazards due to the construction of a mixed-use development called Liverpool Waters on the city’s historic north docks.

The British city has been warned about the plans several times.

Still “it [will] It’s a tough decision for the committee, “she said.