The Unintended Consequences of UNESCO World Heritage Listing
By Chloé Maurel | January 11, 2017
The principle of world heritage promoted by UNESCO is of crucial importance at a time when tourism has become a global phenomenon, involving more than a billion people and generating an annual revenue of nearly US$1245 billion in 2014.
With the 1972 Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, UNESCO created the list of sites thought to be of exceptional value. While listing does not automatically lead to funding for the protection of listed sites, and although UNESCO is powerless to stop them being destroyed or damaged (like the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan, destroyed by the Taliban in 2001, or the Temple of Baal in Palmyra, Syria, demolished in 2015), the list of world heritage sites remains a key element of UNESCO’s work, and what it is best known for by the general public.
UNESCO world heritage listing confers prestige. It is sought after by countries wishing to promote their historical and natural assets, and gives them a place on the world stage.
Tangible, intangible and documentary heritage
The list of world heritage sites now comprises more than 1,000 sites. Another, the intangible cultural heritage list, was created in 2003 to catalogue practices, traditions, dances, customs and know-how, rather than physical sites. In part, its purpose is to redress the obvious asymmetry in the first list, which contains an overwhelming majority of European sites, while Africa is drastically underrepresented. Moreover, listed sites in Africa are mostly “natural” heritage sites, while Europe has a surfeit of “cultural” sites, such a churches and castles, that are already highly valued and do not necessarily require further protection.
In 1995, UNESCO also created a register called The Memory of the World, listing significant and sometimes endangered or fragile artefacts of human documentary heritage, such as the Bayeux tapestry.
It would be easy to assume that these initiatives unite people in a common effort to protect shared cultural heritage. In fact, they often spark power struggles and rivalries, or even open conflict, demonstrating that the principle of heritage can be appropriated for financial, political or geopolitical ends. …
Mass tourism at listed sites
Several cases illustrate the problematic nature of UNESCO’s heritage protection measures. Very often, the principle of world cultural heritage is diverted from its official purpose and used to promote tourism, or for political and economic reasons. In his study of UNESCO’s heritage policies, anthropologist David Berliner speaks of the “Unescoization” of the small heritage listed city of Luang Prabang in Laos. He demonstrates that one of the contradictory consequences of UNESCO protection is intense tourism development. …
Negative outcomes for local populations
Prestigious as it is, the list of world heritage sites can also negatively affect sections of the local population. In Panama City, the 1997 listing of the historic Casco Viejo neighbourhood relegated its poorest inhabitants to the city limits. Meanwhile, the central district became a tourist attraction. At the time, the Casco Viejo was a run-down neighbourhood. It underwent a radical transformation, resulting in the brutal eviction of people from the poorer classes, whose windows were boarded in attempts to force them out while the surrounding neighbourhood was restored and gentrified.
It is now largely inhabited by rich foreigners who buy up the best colonial buildings to sell off in parcels. Tourism in Panama City has increased exponentially since the heritage listing, homogenising the urban landscape and exacerbating inequalities. …
Read the full version of this article at The Conversation: