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November/December 2006
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World Heritage Destinations Rated: Asia

Introduction    Africa (sub-Saharan)     Asia      Australia & New Zealand

    Middle East & North Africa   North America & the Caribbean  

South and Central America

Panelists exchanged comments, which were kept anonymous to maintain survey neutrality during the rating process. These lightly edited excerpts offer a glimpse of panelists' varied points of view and the reasoning behind each score. They are not the views of the National Geographic Society.

Cambodia: Angkor
Score: 48

"The main problem in Angkor will be coping with the weight of numbers, particularly when it is the greatest single tourism asset in a very poor country. There will be enormous pressure to exploit it to the max. The gateway town of Siem Reap has been developing rapidly in an unconstrained, unplanned way. Economic benefits to the local community may be minimal."

"State of conservation and aesthetic appeal are high, and continuing to improve. There are serious future issues with the radical subsidence of the water table, which will threaten the stability of the monuments themselves. The single-minded pursuit of high-volume tourism (which has caused the subsidence of the water table through pumping) has also destroyed the social integrity of the town of Siem Reap, which is now overrun with karaoke bars and sex tourism venues."

"The main Angkor temple area is heavily impacted, and vandalism both modern and ancient is obvious. At the same time the aesthetics are intact and the site impressive. Guides interviewed were knowledgeable and motivated. Smaller temple complexes were less impacted."

"No attempt is being made to relate the availability of hotel beds to the carrying capacity of the site."

"Serious environmental and social problems with hotel development outside the protected area. Potentially catastrophic: no sewage treatment, water being unsustainably drawn from local aquifers, money laundering through hotel industry."

"Siem Reap, the gateway to Angkor is about to explode. Available water is consumed by the increasing number of tourists, leaving no potable water supply for the local folks. There is no sewage system to cater to the growing number of hotels."

"Overall a colossal missed opportunity to properly promote Khmer culture."

"Tourism here benefits corrupt officials and corporations, not local people. Tourism aimed at East Asian (Chinese, Korean, Japanese) tourists is carpet-bagger tourism—they ride in Korean (for instance) buses, eat Korean food, have
a Korean guide, and avoid any contact with local customs, foods, or people."

China: The Great Wall
Score: 56

"It depends what part of the Great Wall one speaks of. The parts nearest to Beijing are overrun with tour buses and souvenir vendors. Fashionable upscale housing developments even pop up near the Great Wall. The wear and tear on the Wall is a major problem. Out west, the earlier Han portions of the Wall are at risk because of environment and time."
"A person could write a book starting at Shanghaiguan, where the wall rises from the sea, and ending at Jiayuguan, where it falls off a desert cliff. Most people will have visited one of the sites outside of Beijing. Badaling is a sea of KFCs and tour buses; Simatai recently ordered the destruction of its cable car to preserve its more austere settings. At tourist spots such as Badaling, it's a reconstructed photo-op. But in neighboring villages, a person can climb on the unrestored wall in solitude. The best new tourist site that encompasses geotourism benchmarks is Gubeikou, north of Beijing. The trails, signs, and restoration of the wall combine to give an educational and meaningful visit. Locals participate as seen in tour guides, ticket sellers, and trash-pickers. No badgering here, just respect for the relic and its visitors."

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China: Lijiang and Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan
Score: 52

"The Naxi culture and Dongba religion have been used and abused for tourism. The architectural legacy of this city is preserved, but its capacity to handle human waste is surpassed. The old town is surrounded by ugly hotels controlled by major tour operators. The three gorges are magnificent, but tourism numbers grew too fast for the services sector to keep up."

"Lijiang is a beautiful historic town in a fine landscape setting. However, it has lost a great deal of its authenticity as tourism development has been directed towards the prettification of the buildings and adapting them to uses aimed at mass tourism. The open market, for example, now sells souvenirs rather than food and domestic goods."

"The facades of the buildings are authentic enough. However, a World Heritage site is more than just the buildings. The surrounding natural attractions are overused. There needs to be more effort to protect the area."

"Reconstruction and development has resulted in large sections of the old town losing its authenticity in terms of its patina, as well as dislocation of the original inhabitants of the Silk Route; falconeers have given way to boutique shops. The local need to learn Mandarin (and English) will inevitably cause the demise of the living Naxi Drongba language and culture."

"The Three Rivers region is under extreme threat, as this area is being surveyed for a series of dams, some of which will stop the last free-flowing river in Asia."

China: Qin Emperor Mausoleum (terra-cotta warriors), Xi'an
Score: 66

"The terra-cotta warriors are an overwhelming experience that is well worth the trek. The presentation and site are very well kept, and the museum is informative. Access to it is through Xi'an, a city well worth visiting for its wall, its Muslim district, and its mosque, even though, like most cities in China, it is being transformed very rapidly, and not necessarily in a beneficial way for the heritage districts."

"Visitors to the warriors normally stay in Xi'an, visit sites like the Ban Po village and the towers and markets of Xi'an, and have a day trip to the terra-cotta warriors. There has been good work to showcase models of the statues and explain them in many languages."

"The conservation work at the site is very serious and even world standard-setting …There has been no attempt to scale the infrastructure to manage the hordes of tourists. The experience is like going to a theme park with some archaeology in the middle of a lot of concrete."

"There is little aesthetic appeal in the site, as it resembles a circus, packed with touts grabbing your arm, blaring bullhorns, and large groups of tourists."

"The spiritual dimensions of the emperor's quest for immortality could be better explored as the backdrop to the warriors."

China: Suzhou town and gardens
Score: 60

"Somehow there is a sense in Suzhou that it is really just a tourist trap where the locals just want to pump you for your money. There is little interpretation on the site and few attempts to show the linkages of the gardens to the rest of Suzhou life. There is nothing about the silk industry, for example, for which the town is famous."
"The gardens themselves are beautiful and well kept but the age of the gardeners would suggest much may be lost if young well trained and paid horticulturalists are not found soon."

"The majority of the gardens do exhibit a high quality but are essentially oases in a traditional urban structure that is succumbing to pressures of overdevelopment. There are particularly inappropriate municipal prestige projects."

"Two-tier fees make the gardens more accessible to locals. While there are vendors at the exit of each garden, they are not generally permitted in the gardens. On holidays there can be overcrowding, but the families enjoying the gardens are an asset in themselves."

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China/Tibet: Potala Palace, Lhasa and environs
Score: 46

"The Potala is one of the true architectural wonders of this world, and it still shines against the Tibetan sky. The palace is now a museum, not a living cultural institution. Entrance fees are steep, even for local Tibetans."

"The physical conservation of the buildings of the Potala Palace is excellent, and visitation to the Palace is well managed. However, there is no 'spirit of place' remaining in Lhasa because of the sustained and increasingly successful attempt to eradicate Tibetan culture. No longer are there any pilgrims around the Jokang. The religious articles market has disappeared, replaced by tourism souvenir shops. And the important pilgrimage route between the Jokang and the Potala is lined with plastic palm trees, cartoon cutouts, and all variety of consumer shops. Likewise the vernacular architecture of Lhasa has been replaced by faked stone and concrete versions."
"How to deal with 6,000 visitors daily, four times capacity? As a living relic, the Palace's interior is heavily policed with CCTV cameras and plainclothes officers, who seem as intent on watching the monks as the relics."
"Remaining parts of traditional vernacular neighborhoods in Lhasa are now protected, but damage is irreversible, and Lhasa is de facto a Han Chinese city. No social or cultural integrity. Aesthetic appeal mostly lost, although the Potala remains a majestic monument."

India: Agra and sights—Taj Mahal, Agra Fort, Fatehpur Sikri
Score: 56

"Tourism was overwhelming, but once you emerged from the dark entry corridor, the building was pure magic—incredibly preserved and the detailed marblework was well-polished and maintained. The sunset on the white marble is a vision no camera has yet truly captured."

"The city of Agra has been in economic decline following the supreme court judgment closing all polluting industry which could damage the Taj. Court orders to upgrade infrastructure have failed and the local community resents India's most valued heritage. The environment is degraded, and even though there is a green belt of 500 meters around the Taj Mahal, there is no attraction in the city to encourage tourists to stay. Overcrowding and uncontrolled guides, touts, and heavy-handed security agencies make a visit to one of the most beautiful sites in the world a harrowing experience."

"Fatehpur Sikri is a fascinating place and deserves greater recognition and resources. However, much of its charm rests on the fact that it is still in use as a place of veneration and has a living cultural heritage. I am slightly worried about the sound and light show, and hope that it does not damage the peace and integrity of the place."

"Agra Fort is a mess of mismanagement. It has little value except as a Sunday picnic destination for local residents, who use the generous inside space as a football pitch. A constant issue: how to manage the site as a whole, using the river as a thread linking all three monuments. The unrestored gardens along the river opposite the Taj are an important heritage resource left undeveloped and unprotected. Master planning is needed, followed by vigorous implementation."

"The sites are relatively well-preserved but their meaning has been lost. Tourism in this region is controlled by tour operators from Delhi who absorb almost all economic benefits. As a result, these wonderful sites are surrounded by poverty. In turn, this poverty leads to hawking, corruption, crime etc., which has caused these attractions to feel like a private club for former colonial ruling elites."

India: Ellora and Ajanta Caves, and Aurangabad
Score: 67

"Ajanta is one of the most beautiful painted caves anywhere, and is reasonably well maintained. But Jalgaon, the closest town of any size, has nothing to offer. Ellora, with its magnificent Kailasa Temple, is in that way better, being closer to Aurangabad, which has plenty to offer both in things to see and places to stay and eat."

"The visitor experience there is better than it was five to ten years ago. What is most lacking at the sites, however, is interpretation which links these and the many other Buddhist and Jain cave sites to the larger historic cultural landscape and the environment. Without this link, it is very difficult for a visitor who is not also an historian of early India to get a sense of what the function of these spectacular places was and why they were built in the first place."

"A big tourist destination. It has historical, cultural, and artistic importance, but has a maintenance problem. Tourists need guidelines as to how to view and not destroy the historical caves. The site has been neglected and requires careful evaluation to improve the area."

"Very high levels of technical expertise are being employed by the Archaeological Survey of India. There is a severe threat to the stability of the cliff faces above the cave entrances due to water penetration."

"The authentic Indian rurality in these caves and their surroundings is their selling point, though this is a difficult sell for the more touristically-inclined consumers!"

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Indonesia: Borobudur and environs
Score: 58

"The Borobudur is a very impressive Buddhist monument. The green environment and the surrounding volcanoes make it a beautiful site."

"The 1970s restoration included a master plan which was state-of-the-art for its time, but has now proven to be very ill-thought out indeed, as it transformed Borobudur into a tourist attraction, cut off from the larger, planned cultural landscape, which is in the form of an enormous mandala incorporating temples, villages, rivers and volcanoes. Because of this, the responsible local authorities see the value of Borobudur only in terms of attracting shoppers. There are plans floated repeatedly to ring the monument with a shopping mall."

"Conservation work is good and archaeological monitoring is thorough. Tourism management on site is good, with congestion reasonably well managed.  Reasonable attempts are made to communicate the significance of the site, although many visitors still simply want to climb to the top. A major weakness is that the old World Heritage listing is tightly drawn around the base of the monument, and fails to recognize the importance of the wider cultural landscape of the valley and nearby Mount Merapi."

"Borobudur is aesthetically appealing, but only at sunrise/sunset. The site is overrun by school groups and tourists during daylight hours. It was distressing to see the damage resulting from the earthquake of May 27, 2006, and the pending eruption of Mount Merapi is also a threat, so the stewardship role becomes critical to the future sustainability of Borobudur and environs."

"The largest problem is the huge number of persistent hawkers who try at every opportunity to sell their trash and trinkets to the tourists. This has a large, adverse impact on the social integrity of the visitor's experience and takes away significantly from the spiritual experience of visiting this great shrine."

Japan: Ancient Kyoto
Score: 74

"Retains original character in a contemporary context. Great celebration of the craftsmen as 'living treasures.'"

"One continuous photo opportunity, very pleasing to the eye and spirit."

"The great Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines have been impeccably conserved, to the highest Japanese standards, and have preserved their characteristic calm and beauty although surrounded by a bustling modern city."

"Stewardship is part of Japanese lifestyle and therefore sustainability seems guaranteed."

"Problems with encroachment, but overall this is a great example of architectural, landscape, religious, and historical integration and development. Not a 'frozen in time' site and it works."

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Nepal: Kathmandu Valley
Score: 39

"Very rich architectural heritage. Palaces, houses, religious buildings of the Hindus and Buddhists built in centuries-old Niwar style of wood carvings that are unparalleled in the world. Still-lived-in old cities celebrating festivals and performing daily rituals."

"The aesthetic appeal of ancient temples and other treasures of architecture is diminished by modern concrete buildings that surround many of them."

"The polluted air prevents views of the mountains surrounding the valley, occluding what should be one of Kathmandu's most attractive features."

"Those places where the local government has taken control of management have fared much better. This is one of the best examples of the rule that heritage is best taken care of when there is local community stewardship and empowerment."

"Huge influxes of pilgrims (more than tourists) put enormous pressures on the
site, undertaking special ceremonies when several thousand may engage in an all-night 'puja.' It is pilgrims who are not 'treading lightly.' Tourists tend to be reasonably well behaved and follow instructions. Pilgrims, with their sense of ownership, often treat the places very differently!"

Sri Lanka: Polonnaruwa, Sigiriya, Dambulla and environs
Score: 66

"The ancient cultural sites date back 1,000 to 3,000 or more years. The infrastructure, architecture, engineering, and artwork at all of these locations are truly extraordinary, especially in light of how old they are, and how little attention and resources they receive. Most of these sites are visited by a mixture of Sri Lankans and foreign tourists. These sites could improve dramatically with education materials, information centers, better trained guides, etc."

"A significant religious and cultural center with highly preserved built and natural heritage. It's stunning, with a rich variety of local flora and fauna. Some illegal commercial activity is occurring within the site.  "

"Sites have declined in quality considerably. It is simply not acceptable to get chased by souvenir sellers, beggars and 'guides' inside the site."

"The seven-site World Heritage country-wide ticket for international visitors is a good program but does not generate sufficient funds for site improvements and upkeep."

"Basic good practices are in situ and there is good awareness of responsibilities. Access to these sites is difficult and not for the faint of heart, hotels are good but all are fairly expensive, and there are few facilities for backpackers."

Vietnam: Ha Long Bay
Score: 50

"The most beautiful karst-in-the-sea landscape in the world, with still unspoiled cliffs and small islands."

"A major disaster. The water is terminally polluted due to the coal shipping in the area. The bay is jammed with endless low-end tourist boats servicing cheap group tours from China, all throwing garbage into the water, and creating a racket of sound pollution with their engines. Concrete walkways have been built to get visitors into the archaeological cave sites, which have been gussied up with colored fluorescent lights. The heritage values have been discarded in favor of recreation values."

"The continued crush of tourism development around the bay is putting extreme pressure on the islands due to increasing visitation. The international airport will only increase the problem. A visitor management plan for the area is desperately needed."

"There is no evidence that tourism development encourages protection by the local community."

"Little information is provided for tourists about how their actions may contribute to site degradation or might alternatively contribute to site preservation. Tourists could be better informed. The site could be better managed and preserved. This should include measures to involve local people in planning and a 'pro-poor' focus in future tourism development."

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