What Are UNESCO World Heritage Sites?

What Are UNESCO World Heritage Sites?

The phrase, “UNESCO World Heritage Site,” is tossed about in the travel world as often as battered baggage, or over-the-top adjectives for so-so places.  It’s a hard-earned designation, reflecting a place that truly is “best in the world.”  So what does it really mean, and why visit one of these nearly 1,100 special sites in 111 countries?

A Treasured Designation are called the “best of the best,” valued for their cultural or natural significance and nominated under strict criteria for their “outstanding universal value.”  Think Red Square in Moscow, Russia, Yellowstone National Park in Montana, Istanbul’s Blue Mosque in Turkey, or Lake Baikal in Siberia. Other places include deserts, monuments, mountains, forests, islands, and even entire cities.

Sunset on domes, minarets and mosques of Istanbul, Turkey
Photo credit: Republic of Turkey Ministry of Culture and Tourism

Wintertime wooden churches of UNESCO-listed Suzdal, Russia <br>Photo credit: Jonathan Irish

Wintertime wooden churches of UNESCO-listed Suzdal, Russia
Photo credit: Jonathan Irish

A committee’s criteria strongly focuses on universal value: Culturally, is it born out of human creative genius, or architecturally important? Naturally, is it part of the earth’s history, a natural habitat, or an endangered species?  In a nutshell, these are the greatest treasures in the world, to be cherished and preserved for future generations.

UNESCO-listed Imam Square in Isfahan, Iran is one of the largest in the world Photo credit: Devin Connolly

UNESCO-listed Imam Square in Isfahan, Iran 
Photo credit: Devin Connolly

Topping the HitsSuch a designation comes with benefits. Once listed as a UNESCO site, these nearly 1,100 places are protected under many treaties, especially in wartime.  Most important is that these sites can apply for preservation funding from the World Heritage Fund.  Of course, such an international honor can bring tourists in droves, boosting local economies and helping support the continued preservation of these places.  Countries with the most UNESCO designations include Italy, China, Spain, France, and Germany.

One of 38 UNESCO-listed painted monasteries in Bukovina, Romania Photo credit: David W. Allen

One of eight UNESCO-listed painted monasteries in Bukovina, Romania
Photo credit: David W. Allen

A Bit of HistoryThe program was sparked in the 1950s, when the Egyptian government decided to build the Aswan Dam in a location that would flood a valley containing ancient temples and treasures. Fifty countries raised $80M (about $700M today) to carefully take apart and rebuild certain temples on higher locations; others were permanently moved to other countries. This led to new campaigns to preserve and protect the so-called “cultural heritage of humanity,” from Italy and Iran to Tajikistan and Ethiopia.

The ancient ruins of Chersonesus in Ukraine were UNESCO-listed in 2013 Photo credit: Douglas Grimes

The ancient ruins of Chersonesus in Ukraine were UNESCO-listed in 2013
Photo credit: Joanna Millick

In the 1970s, the World Heritage Committee was born out of these international preservation efforts through UNESCO, an acronym for United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Think of UNESCO as a guard dog, safely watching over these precious treasures of the world for generations to come.

Visit UNESCO World Heritage Sites with MIRYou can view some of these treasured UNESCO places in this photo gallery by clicking on any photo.


(Top photo credit: Jonathan Irish)

 

PUBLISHED: January 12, 2014

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