01 agosto 2009
To List or Not To List? - News Week
The ancient city of Dresden, a delicate baroque confection lovingly reconstructed after the Second World War, has thrilled visitors with its skyline, best viewed from the banks of the River Elbe. Not for much longer. To the outrage of conservationists, work is underway on a new bridge to carry a four-lane highway across the valley, marring the vista forever. In a potent gesture of protest, UNESCO recently stripped the city of its status as a World Heritage site.
Some might consider that a harsh penalty. After all, the World Heritage ranking placed Dresden alongside the Great Wall of China and the Taj Mahal as a monument of "outstanding universal value." But to the locals, ridding the city of choking traffic was more important than any accolade. In two referendums, they supported the bridge plan. As city councilor Jan Mücke said, "In a democracy, we cannot have a dictatorship of a minority that, acting out of esthetic grounds, thinks they know more than the overwhelming majority of citizens."
World Heritage status sure isn't what it used to be. Plenty of countries still strive to earn a place on UNESCO's list and reap the benefits of the tourism boom that normally follows, but some are beginning to question the honor's long-term value. In the developed world, there's sometimes resentment at outside interference; elsewhere there's deepening concern that the scheme, intended to preserve the world's greatest treasures, may actually be contributing to their demise. Underfunded and armed with little more than moral authority, UNESCO can't do much to help the swelling number of sites—the tally now approaches 900—it singles out for distinction. "Among conservationists there is sometimes a feeling that if conservation is the goal, then we should leave these places alone," says Peter Fowler, a British archeologist who has worked with UNESCO.
Trouble is, conservation is not always the goal. For national governments and local traders, a World Heritage listing represents a marketing tool that can turn obscure sites into must-see destinations. The repercussions are hard to prevent. In the ancient western Chinese city of Lijiang, the number of annual visitors climbed from 1.7 million to 4.6 million in the 10 years since it was listed in 1997. In the words of a UNESCO mission last year, "Commercial interests have driven measures to facilitate large numbers of tourists, compromising the authentic heritage values which attracted visitors to the property in the first place.''
The same is true of Angkor Wat, the vast temple complex that is now Cambodia's leading tourist draw. Since the site gained World Heritage status in 1992, the number of visitors has leapt from fewer than 10,000 to more than 1 million a year. Now a sprawling town has grown up to serve the hordes of tourists that arrive daily. Worse, local hotels have been extracting water from underground reserves, threatening to undermine the temples themselves. "Being a World Heritage site can contribute [to visitor numbers] between 10 times and 500 times over five years," says Jeff Morgan of the Global Heritage Fund. "Instead of a small paragraph in Frommer's, it suddenly gets three pages. And if a site is not ready, you can get thousands of people crawling over it."There is no question that UNESCO can exert a positive influence. The organization can be "discreetly effective" in preventing the worst depredations, says Francesco Bandarin, director of the Paris-based World Heritage Center, which runs the list. If the Great Pyramids of Giza can be seen against the sunset without a highway marring the view, tourists can thank pressure from UNESCO. Still, Bandarin concedes, "We can provide one more layer of protection, but it's far from perfect."
By William Underhill | NEWSWEEK
Published Jul 25, 2009
From the magazine issue dated Aug 3, 2009