what to do and lose site status


Being inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List often brings world fame, tourism income and access to international funding and expertise.

But there are conditions.

World Heritage sites are, in principle, inscribed “forever,” said Mechtild Rossler, Director of the UNESCO World Heritage Center, but countries must do their part to protect and counter threats to sites . This includes the acceptance not to materially modify the sites.

Failure to comply with this rule may result in “delisting” from the list, a fate that has only happened for two World Heritage sites to date.

Be inscribed on the World Heritage List

The process of inscription on the World Heritage List takes years, Rossler said, adding that several sites have waited around 25 years to be named to the prestigious list.

Only countries that ratify the World Heritage Convention (adopted by UNESCO in 1972) are eligible for sites located on their territory to be inscribed on the list. Called “States Parties”, there are currently 194 of them worldwide.

The World Heritage Convention articulated the idea that the loss of cultural and natural heritage – like the Afghan Bamiyan Buddhas who were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001 – has harmed “all the nations of the world”.

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Sites must be placed on a “provisional list” before they can be officially proposed. The World Heritage Committee, made up of representatives of 21 States Parties, meets once a year to decide which sites nominated for inscription will be inscribed on the World Heritage List.

To be accepted, sites must have “Outstanding Universal Value” and meet at least one of the 10 Criteria, such as being “a masterpiece of human creative genius” or “areas of outstanding natural beauty”.

Some States Parties have no World Heritage sites within their borders, including Kuwait, Maldives, Monaco, Rwanda and Bhutan (pictured here).

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There are currently 1121 sites on the World Heritage List, including 869 cultural, 213 natural and 39 mixed.

First of all, a warning

When sites do not follow UNESCO protocols, countries receive a warning letter.

This is what happened to Peru, which received multiple warnings on the threats of overtourism, landslides and floods in Machu Picchu.

Warnings were also sent to St. Petersburg in Russia, which resulted in the construction of the Gazprom Tower being moved 9 kilometers (5.5 miles) from the city center, Rossler said.

Rossler said she had received 30,000 printed letters – so many “I couldn’t even get into my office” – asking for help to protect the Mexican whale sanctuary of El Vizcaino from plans to build a huge salt factory in the vicinity.

It is “one of the largest gray whale sanctuaries we have on Earth,” said Rossler, who described leading a mission to the site. “Six months later the Mexican president – imagine, the president – decided to stop it. It was a big party of course, we were jumping up and down.

Be added to the ‘List of hazards’

Many sites are in compliance with the alert stage, Rossler said, but not all.

At this point, UNESCO organizes a site mission and presents its findings to the World Heritage Committee, which makes the decision to place a site on UNESCO’s’ List of World Heritage in Danger ‘- often referred to simply as a’ List. in danger”.

Decisions on the Endangered List are “within the purview of the Committee … it’s not UNESCO,” said Mechtild Rossler, Director of the UNESCO World Heritage Center, presented here at the 40th session of the Committee World Heritage Site in Istanbul, Turkey on July 11, 2016.

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Currently, there are 53 World Heritage sites on the List in Danger, including the Historic Center of Vienna and the Old City (and Walls) of Jerusalem, as well as all World Heritage sites in Syria, Libya and Democratic Republic of Congo.

In accordance with Article 11, paragraph 4 of the World Heritage Convention, the list includes sites that are “threatened by serious and specific dangers” such as armed conflict, construction, natural disasters or deterioration or abandonment of land.

Sites can be removed from the danger list, as happened with Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity (considered by Christians to be the birthplace of Jesus) in 2019.

“The Danger List is actually a call to action for all of us … it is trying to help the country.

Mechtild Rossler

Director of the UNESCO World Heritage Center

Governments often resist sites being inscribed on the Endangered List, fearing it will hurt tourism, Rossler said. This is what happened in the Galapagos Islands, she said, where authorities “have worked very hard” to deal with threats to the region. The site was removed from the endangered list in 2010.

“Another example is Kathmandu in Nepal,” which UNESCO proposed to the list after two devastating earthquakes that struck in 2015, she said. “They lobbied a lot within the World Heritage Committee not to be on the Danger List.”

Some countries mistake the list for “blackmail,” according to Rossler. “They see it as a red list,” she told CNBC.

But “the Hazards List is actually a call to action for all of us … it is trying to help the country,” she said.

UNESCO counts Dubrovnik, Croatia, as one of its achievements. Dubrovnik was removed from the Danger List in 1998 after the walled part of the city’s “old town” was repaired from damage caused by the armed conflict with Yugoslav forces in the early 1990s.

The site, however, was back in the sights of UNESCO after the HBO series “Game of Thrones” caused a tourist deluge. After seeing its heritage status threatened, Dubrovnik capped cruise ship tourists at 5,000 per day in 2019, according to local media.

UNESCO recently rejected plans to build an amusement park outside Cambodia’s Angkor temple complex, Rossler said, because “any development inside and outside” World Heritage sites must be managed in such a way as to preserve them for future generations.

TANG CHHIN SOTHY | AFP | Getty Images

Rossler said that UNESCO’s sustainable tourism program is working with tour operators such as cruise ships “so that they better understand that they shouldn’t be coming … with 4,000 passengers and all going to a small town. Like Dubrovnik or Tallinn, Estonia.

Sometimes cruise passengers “don’t even know where they are,” said a laughing Rossler, who said she knew from conversations she’s had with tourists in the field.

The ultimate sanction: delisting

Only two World Heritage sites have been removed from the list to date, a move Rossler describes as a failure not of the site, but of the international community.

“It is the international community that must take responsibility, and we have failed twice,” she said.

1. The Arabian Oryx Sanctuary (Oman)

This animal sanctuary contained the first herd of Arabian oryx in the wild since the animals in the wild became extinct in 1972, according to UNESCO.

Oman’s Arabian Oryx Sanctuary was the first site to be “removed” from the UNESCO World Heritage List.

KARIM SAHIB | AFP | Getty Images

The site was inscribed in 1994 and, two years later, was home to some 450 Arabian oryxes. By the 2000s, only 65 – and four breeding pairs – remained due to poaching and habitat loss.

Oman wanted to continue oil and gas exploration, Rossler said, and when it significantly reduced the size of the sanctuary, the World Heritage Committee removed it from the list in 2007.

2. The Dresden Elbe Valley (Germany)

This 11-mile stretch of landscape became a World Heritage Site in 2004 due to the area’s blend of Baroque architecture with relics from the Industrial Revolution, most notably the 19th-century Blue Wonder steel bridge.

Yet it was another bridge that resulted in the destruction of the site.

The controversial Waldschlosschen Bridge divided residents and local authorities during its construction and ultimately caused the area to lose its World Heritage status.

Arno Burgi | image alliance | Getty Images

“The city, not the country… decided to build a four-lane bridge in the middle of the site,” Rossler told CNBC. “The World Heritage Committee said ‘no’ and… they went ahead, against the will of the central government.”

The World Heritage Committee removed the site from the list in 2009 after construction of the Waldschlosschen Bridge was on track.

“The international community has not been able to save the site, and we don’t want to see this anymore,” Rossler said, calling the case “one of the most difficult of my entire career because it was in my own country, Germany. “

A partial cancellation

Another World Heritage Site, Georgia Bagrati Cathedral and Gelati Monastery, has been partially canceled.

Inscribed in 1994, the two buildings – located 10 km apart in Kutaisi, Georgia – were placed on the Endangered List in 2010 after the Committee objected to reconstruction work on the Cathedral of Bagrati which he said “would undermine the integrity and authenticity of the site,” according to the UNESCO website.

Bagrati Cathedral in Georgia is no longer a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Gunter Fischer | Universal Images Group | Getty Images

Gelati Monastery was removed from the Danger List in 2017, but the boundaries of the World Heritage site have been redrawn to exclude Bagrati Cathedral.

Could another site soon be removed from the list?

“It could happen to Liverpool,” Rossler said.

Liverpool Maritime Merchant City is currently on the imperiled list due to the construction of a mixed-use development called Liverpool waters on the historic north quays of the city.

The British city has received several warnings about the plans.

Yet “he [will] be a difficult choice for the Committee to make, ”she said.


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