Beginners Guide to UNESCO World Heritage Sites

You’ll often see the words ‘UNESCO World Heritage Site’ in tourism advertising, guidebooks and online reviews drawing you to visit an attraction. But what exactly does this mean and why should you pay any attention to it? This beginners guide on UNESCO world heritage sites will open your eyes to what it really means and what you should consider when visiting a UNESCO site.

Background on UNESCO

UNESCO stands for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation. Headquartered in the heart of Paris they consist of 195 member countries. The mission of UNESCO is to ‘contribute to the building of peace, the eradication of poverty, sustainable development and intercultural dialogue through education, the sciences, culture, communication and information.’ UNESCO’s mission is quite broad, however in regards to World Heritage Sites, they encourage countries to identify and protect their natural and cultural heritage. Heritage is ‘our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations’. Through local community participation, increased awareness UNESCO encourages conservation of the world’s cultural and natural heritage.

What makes a world heritage site?

Not every site warrants protection by UNESCO. For sites to be added to the list they undergo comprehensive analysis and need to be of outstanding universal value and meet at least one of the ten possible selection criterions. Six of the criteria are for cultural values including representing a testimony to a cultural tradition or civilisation that may have disappeared or a masterpiece of human creative genius just to name a couple. The remaining four criteria are natural tests such as representing major states of earth’s history or significant habitats for the conservation of biological diversity.

The UNESCO Selection Process

A lengthy analysis is undertaken for prospective sites by the host country. The country submits their request for addition to various advisory boards before finally arriving at the World Heritage Committee within UNESCO. The committee meets annually and decides which sites meet the criteria and which do not.

Should I visit a UNESCO site?

A UNESCO site has been declared by the world as a site that is so important that it needs to be protected for future generations. Visiting a UNESCO site can increase the awareness of the heritage being conserved and assist in financing its ongoing protection. This isn’t true for all sites, some of which are so fragile they need to keep visitors away. In visiting a UNESCO site you should consider researching the site before you arrive. Ask yourself why was it listed and will your visit help or hinder its protection?

Where is the List?

The World Heritage List is updated regularly and includes listed and pending inscriptions. You can view the list on the UNESCO website. Hopefully this crash course in UNESCO world heritage listings helps you appreciate these sites for more than just an attraction. Next time you are out and about travelling consider stopping in at a UNESCO site, learning about its heritage and educating yourself on the importance of keeping these sites preserved for future generations.