Is World Heritage Suffering From Overtourism?

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Credit: Mario La Pergola/Unsplash
  • Twenty-seven years later, participating countries ratified UNESCO’s World Heritage Convention in an effort to protect historically important sites from military conflicts, natural disasters, looting, and economic pressures.
  • Protecting an anything-but-static urban area like Vienna’s historic city centre is an inherently fraught proposition.
  • Some locales have succeeded in managing overtourism on their own, like Dubrovnik, Croatia, which, under pressure from UNESCO, capped the number of visitors in its historic centre.

The venerable list of UNESCO has recognised locations with “outstanding universal importance” for protection for 50 years. However, there are drawbacks like overdevelopment and overtourism as reported by National Geographic.

Inviting controversy

The city of Vienna, Austria, announced in December 2016 what at the time seemed like good news: A public-private partnership had been established to construct a new ice skating rink outside the city’s century-old Wiener Konzerthaus 

For those who have visited the luminous birthplace of Beethoven, Mozart, and Freud, two characteristics quickly become evident.

First, the core of Vienna is an architectural dreamscape of baroque palaces, immaculate courtyards, and a neo-Gothic city hall.

In other words, ice skating is as Viennese as sausages and symphonies.

So the idea of a permanent rink, housed inside a high-rise complex to minimise obstruction to pedestrians, would not have been expected to invite controversy.

But one important stakeholder strenuously objected: the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, which decreed that the new complex would undermine central Vienna’s “outstanding universal value.”

‘In-Danger’ List

Vienna’s historic city centre has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2001, one of the organisation’s 1,154 unique landmarks around the globe deemed worthy of protection.

Since announcing its objection to the high-rise rink in 2017, the World Heritage Committee has kept Vienna on its “in danger” list—joining 50 other embattled sites, from the ancient villages of northern Syria to Everglades National Park in Florida.

If the city fails to satisfactorily address the committee’s concerns, it risks being permanently “de-listed” as a UNESCO landmark.

Twenty-seven years later, participating countries ratified UNESCO’s World Heritage Convention in an effort to protect historically important sites from military conflicts, natural disasters, looting, and economic pressures.

Protecting an anything-but-static urban area like Vienna’s historic city centre is an inherently fraught proposition.

It’s one of several challenges that UNESCO’s program has struggled to overcome since its inception in 1972.

Challenges to protecting World Heritage sites

The World Heritage designation has unquestionably succeeded in attracting visitors to isolated, often economically disadvantaged places.

Some locales have succeeded in managing overtourism on their own, like Dubrovnik, Croatia, which, under pressure from UNESCO, capped the number of visitors in its historic centre.

Then there are Cambodia’s 12th-century temples at Angkor Wat, at one time accessible only to priests.

The temples were attracting 22,000 annual visitors when they were inscribed as a World Heritage site in 1992.

Today, that number is five million and is expected to double by 2025.

Insulating World Heritage sites from malevolent actors have long been beyond UNESCO’s capabilities.

The deliberate targeting of a country’s cultural treasures as a show of military belligerence has been all too common—from Aleppo, Syria, to Sana’a, Yemen.

Throughout its half-century history, the World Heritage program has de-listed only three sites.

Still, UNESCO’s influence can extend only so far.

In Laos, for example, the government has proceeded with plans to construct a dam on the Mekong River near the ancient capital of Louangphabang, despite UNESCO’s insistence that a heritage impact assessment takes place beforehand.

Climate change threatening World Heritage sites

Of late, UNESCO has had to confront a newer enemy: climate change.

On this front as well, the organisation has limited tools at its disposal.

In March, UNESCO dispatched a monitoring team to the reef.

Although the Australian government has reportedly pledged roughly £106 million to protect the reef, it remains to be seen whether Australia’s historical aversion to a responsible national climate policy will be reversed.

UNESCO has tended to have considerably more leverage in less wealthy countries, like Belize, where the world’s second biggest reef had languished on the World Heritage Committee’s “in danger” list since 2009 until this past June when the committee applauded Belize for its “visionary” efforts to better manage its coastline.

Perhaps the most famously at-risk World Heritage site is Venice, Italy.

Yet UNESCO decided last year not to place Venice on its “danger” list—once again, an apparent victory for government lobbyists and a defeat for environmental groups, who argued that Italy’s new ban on large cruise ships did not go far enough to address the crisis.

Following UNESCO’s act of inaction, Venetian officials took matters into their own hands.

If it does, UNESCO will have played a role—indistinct and inconclusive, but still important.

Flawed and at times powerless though it may be, the World Heritage program remains relevant, if only because of the principle it espouses.

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Source: National Geographic

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