Explained: How do you become a UNESCO World Heritage Site?

World Heritage sites selections explained in six questions

An iconic World Heritage Site, the Mont-Saint-Michel in France has had a tourist problem for quite some years. Image: grandriver & Prolineserver (Canva/Wikimedia) CC BY-SA 2.5

The Pyramids of Giza, the Great Barrier Reef, the palace of Versailles, and 1151 more sites make up the “World Heritage List”. The vast list comprises not only cultural and historical sites, but also natural heritage; the Galápagos Islands are actually the first inscription. But how does the process to acquire the label and a place on the prestigious list work? EHT set to find out and discovered that the prestigious programme has attracted more controversy over the years than one would think at first.

Where did it all begin?

Attitudes to protecting heritage changed drastically in the 1950s and 1960s when Egypt announced the Aswan Dam project, which would submerge and destroy many historic sites. This drew responses from around the world and put the concept of heritage conservation on the international agenda.

This culminated in UNESCO’s 1972 “Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage”, which established both the World Heritage Committee and the World Heritage List. The convention has now been ratified by 194 states.

The statue of Ramses the Great at the Great Temple of Abu Simbel is reassembled after having been moved in 1967 to save it from being flooded by the Aswan Dam project. Image: Per-Olow Anderson via Wikimedia (Public Domain)

Who decides what goes on the list?

It’s not only the World Heritage Committee. In fact, it often starts on a local level.

The first step is to submit a ‘Tentative List’ to the Committee. This list is created by the state, and holds all the possible sites within a country. Campaigners and activists will have to convince their government to include their local sites on this list before they will be considered by the Committee.

Countries themselves often have a specific emphasis on what the newly enlisted heritage sites or practices should be. In Germany, for example, there is an extra focus on traditions from East Germany, since that part of the country is underrepresented now. Finland hopes to give more attention to indigenous heritage, while France aims to include both cultural and social historical sites as heritage.

With the Tentative List, governments or state parties can then submit a detailed “Nomination File”. This is where the real work begins, as the Committee requires an exhaustive report, alongside any relevant maps and documents.

This report will then be checked and assessed by expert organisations. The International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) evaluates cultural heritage sites, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) evaluates natural sites.

Finally, it is up to the current World Heritage Committee to make a decision, which happens at a conference every two years in the summer. They can even go against suggestions from ICOMOS or IUCN.

What are the criteria?

Ryūgen-ji mabu (mine tunnel) at the Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine. Image: Yama 1009 via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

There are 10 points of criteria, but a site does not have to meet all of them. Only one of the criteria has to be met for a site to be eligible, and the points are notoriously vague. Here are a few examples of what a site could show:

i) to represent a masterpiece of human creative genius

iv) to be an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates (a) significant stage(s) in human history

vii) to contain superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance

Whether a site meets the criteria relies on the Committee, and can be vulnerable to lobbying. For example, the Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine in Japan was inscribed in 2007, despite ICOMOS’ doubts that it met any of the critera.

What are the benefits?

There are benefits provided by UNESCO to protect and conserve sites, and UNESCO often points to the varied ways in which awareness of culture brings people together. More awareness also means more protection, but listed sites can also receive financial assistance and expert guidance from the Committee to help secure the sites.

For many, though, the real draw is tourism. The label allows sites to carve out a global identity for themselves, and entice global tourists. Listings really help to put a place on the map, and this can bring massive income – the Angkor temples in Cambodia attracted less than 10,000 visitors in 1993 when it was inscribed; now millions visit them every year.

Has anything ever been taken off the list?

Yes – three times.

In 2007, Oman’s Arabian Oryx sanctuary was delisted after the government reduced the size of the sanctuary by 90% – at the time of delisting, poaching and habitat degradation had left only 4 breeding pairs of Oryx.

In 2009, the Dresden Elbe Valley was delisted. The Waldschlösschen Bridge had been in construction for a couple of years, which caused concerns over the identity of the Valley. After intense discussion, plans to build the bridge proceeded, and in return, the World Heritage label was removed from the area.

In 2021, Liverpool’s Maritime Mercantile City was scrapped from the list due to modern construction at the site. Redevelopment in the area, including a £500m football stadium, led to a perceived drop in authenticity and a loss of ‘historic attributes’, according to the World Heritage Committee.

The Waldschlösschen Bridge under construction near Dresden in 2011. Image: Brücke-Osteuropa CC0

Does everyone agree?

Definitely not. There are many criticisms of both the World Heritage Committee and List.

While municipalities and tourist boards push for visitor numbers, the impacts of tourism can be incredibly damaging for both the site and the local community. World Heritage listings can often have the opposite effect than intended, as commodification prompts governments to look for profit in heritage, rather than preservation. Think about the mass tourism problems in Venice or the Mont-Saint-Michel for example.

Secondly, the World Heritage Committee’s structure is very open to politicisation and bureaucracy. The vagueness of the criteria for listing provides opportunities for lobbying and potential abuse from the Committee.

UNESCO’s main strength is its ‘soft power’. It can guide and suggest, but aside from cutting funding and canceling inscriptions, it has little manpower. The responsibility to preserve heritage remains with governments. Countries may have ratified the convention, but it’s difficult to enforce.

This article was originally published in English. Texts in other languages are AI-translated. To change language: go to the main menu above.