UNESCO World Heritage, Explained

Best of the best: That's the lofty standard for making the World Heritage List. Nations lobby hard to get their glorious buildings, wilderness, and historic ruins on the list, a stamp of approval that brings prestige, tourist income, public awareness, and, most important, a commitment to save the irreplaceable. Travel editor, Gulnaz Khan explains what UNESCO World Heritage is and how sites are chosen to make the list. Lean more here.

Best of the best: That's the lofty standard for making the World Heritage List. Nations lobby hard to get their glorious buildings, wilderness, and historic ruins on the list, a stamp of approval that brings prestige, tourist income, public awareness, and, most important, a commitment to save the irreplaceable.

In November 1972 the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) inaugurated the list by adopting a treaty known as the World Heritage Convention. Its continuing goal is to recruit the world community in identifying cultural and natural properties of "outstanding universal value."

UNESCO officials do not see the list as a mere trophy case of superlative places. World Heritage status commits the home nation to protect the designated location. And if a site—through natural disaster, war, pollution, or lack of funds—begins to lose its value, nations that have signed the treaty must assist, if possible, in emergency aid campaigns. As of January 2017, 193 of the world's nations have signed the treaty.

On the lush volcanic island of Ra’iatea in the center of the Polynesian Triangle, forested valley, lagoon, and coral reef make up the property of Taputapuātea. In addition to its stunning natural features, the marae complex—a political, ceremonial and funerary center—is evidence of traditional Polynesian worship. Travel tip: Air Tahiti offers 40-minute flights to Ra’iatea from Papeete and Moorea, and daily 15-minute flights from Huahine and Bora Bora. The island can also be reached by ferry, but runs less frequently.

Taputapuātea

On the lush volcanic island of Ra’iatea in the center of the Polynesian Triangle, forested valley, lagoon, and coral reef make up the property of Taputapuātea. In addition to its stunning natural features, the marae complex—a political, ceremonial and funerary center—is evidence of traditional Polynesian worship. Travel tip: Air Tahiti offers 40-minute flights to Ra’iatea from Papeete and Moorea, and daily 15-minute flights from Huahine and Bora Bora. The island can also be reached by ferry, but runs less frequently.
Photograph by STEPHEN ALVAREZ, Nat Geo Image Collection

The World Heritage program has scored high-profile successes. It exerted pressure to halt a highway near Egypt's Giza Pyramids, block a salt mine at a gray whale nursery in Mexico, and cancel a dam proposal above Africa's Victoria Falls. Its funds, provided by dues from the treaty's signers, have hired park rangers, bought parkland, built visitor centers, and restored temples. It relies on persuasive powers more than legal threats, but over a period of nearly five decades, the World Heritage initiative has quietly become a force for appreciating and safeguarding the world's special places.

As of 2018, there were 1,073 properties on the World Heritage list: 832 of cultural significance, 206 of natural significance, and 35 of mixed value. For sites in urgent need of safegaurding, Article 11.4 of the 1972 UNESCO convention established the List of World Heritage in Danger to recognize sites under threat from urban and tourism development, armed conflict, natural disasters, and abandonment. As of 2018, 54 sites are listed in danger.

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