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World Heritage Sites

Nearly 900 UNESCO World Heritage Sites Around the World

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Sydney Opera House, a World Heritage Site

The Sydney Opera House, a World Heritage Site, at dawn.

Guy Vanderelst/Getty Images
Updated July 03, 2014
A World Heritage Site is a site determined by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to have significant cultural or natural importance to humanity. As such the sites are protected and maintained by the International World Heritage Program which is administered by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee.

Because World Heritage Sites are places that are significant culturally and naturally, they vary in type but include forests, lakes, monuments, buildings and cities. World Heritage Sites can also be a combination of both cultural and natural areas. For example, Mount Huangshan in China is a site with significance to human culture because it played a role in historical Chinese art and literature. The mountain is also significant because of its physical landscape characteristics.

History of World Heritage Sites

Although the idea of protecting cultural and natural heritage sites around the world began in the early twentieth century, momentum for its actual creation was not until the 1950s. In 1954, Egypt started plans to build the Aswan High Dam to collect and control water from the Nile River. The initial plan for the dam’s construction would have flooded the valley containing the Abu Simbel Temples and scores of ancient Egyptian artifacts.

To protect the temples and artifacts, UNESCO launched an international campaign in 1959 that called for the dismantling and movement of the temples to higher ground. The project cost an estimated US $80 million, $40 million of which came from 50 different countries. Because of the project’s success, UNESCO and the International Council on Monuments and Sites initiated a draft convention to create an international organization responsible for protecting cultural heritage.

Shortly thereafter in 1965, a White House Conference in the United States called for a “World Heritage Trust” to protect historic cultural sites but to also protect the world’s significant natural and scenic sites. Finally, in 1968, the International Union for Conservation of Nature developed similar goals and presented them at the United Nations conference on Human Environment in Stockholm, Sweden in 1972.

Following the presentation of these goals, the Convention concerning the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage was adopted by UNESCO’s General Conference on November 16, 1972.

The World Heritage Committee

Today, the World Heritage Committee is the main group responsible for establishing which sites will be listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Committee meets once a year and consists of representatives from 21 State Parties that are elected for six year terms by the World Heritage Center’s General Assembly. The State Parties are then responsible for identifying and nominating new sites within their territory to be considered for inclusion on the World Heritage list.

Becoming a World Heritage Site

There are five steps in becoming a World Heritage Site, the first of which is for a country or State Party to take an inventory of its significant cultural and natural sites. This is called the Tentative List and it is important because nominations to the World Heritage List will not be considered unless the nominated site was first included on the Tentative List.

Next, countries are then able to select sites from their Tentative Lists to be included on a Nomination File. The third step is a review of the Nomination File by two Advisory Bodies consisting of the International Council on Monuments and Sites and the World Conservation Union who then make recommendations to the World Heritage Committee. The World Heritage Committee meets once a year to review these recommendations and decide which sites will be added to the World Heritage List.

The final step in becoming a World Heritage Site is determining whether or not a nominated site meets at least one of ten selection criteria. If the site meets these criteria it can then be inscribed on the World Heritage List. Once a site goes through this process and is chosen, it remains the property of the country on whose territory it sits, but it also becomes considered within the international community.

Types of World Heritage Sites

As of 2009, there are 890 World Heritage Sites that are located in 148 countries (map). 689 of these sites are cultural and include places like the Sydney Opera House in Australia and the Historic Center of Vienna in Austria. 176 are natural and feature such locations as the U.S.’s Yellowstone and Grand Canyon National Parks. 25 of the World Heritage Sites are considered mixed. Peru’s Machu Picchu is one of these.

Italy has the highest number of World Heritage Sites with 44. The World Heritage Committee has divided the world’s countries into five geographic zones which include 1) Africa, 2) Arab States, 3) Asia Pacific (including Australia and Oceania), 4) Europe and North America and 5) Latin America and the Caribbean.

World Heritage Sites in Danger

Like many natural and historic cultural sites around the world, many World Heritage Sites are in danger of being destroyed or lost due to war, poaching, natural disasters like earthquakes, uncontrolled urbanization, heavy tourist traffic and environmental factors like air pollution and acid rain.

World Heritage Sites that are in danger are inscribed on a separate List of World Heritage Sites in Danger which allows the World Heritage Committee to allocate resources from the World Heritage Fund to that site. In addition, different plans are put into place to protect and/or restore the site. If however, a site loses the characteristics which allowed for it to originally be included on the World Heritage List, the World Heritage Committee can choose to delete the site from the list.

To learn more about World Heritage Sites, visit the World Heritage Center’s website at whc.unesco.org.

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