When tourism and culture are a topic to discuss one of the first concepts that rises to surface is heritage and although we can somewhat understand the meaning by the context to which it refers itself, it may be that due to lack of knowledge we do not understand its importance. Let’s clarify!
The RAE defines Heritage (1) as the “Set of assets of a nation accumulated over the centuries, which, by their meaning […] are subject to special protection by legislation”. The importance lies in it’s ability to contribute to the continuous revaluation of both cultures and identities and to be an important vehicle for the transmission of experiences, skills and knowledge between different generations. (2) These resources are a “fragile wealth” “Once they are lost, they are not recoverable, which is why they require the creation of development policies and models designed to preserve and respect their diversity and uniqueness. At the global level, the most authoritative entity in terms of heritage, education and culture is UNESCO and, in order to better regulate this responsibility, member states approved in 1972 the ‘World Heritage Convention’ to protect and conserve those elements of each culture and area that, for their remarkable qualities, have an “Outstanding Universal Value” either from the point of view of history, art, science, environmental conservation or aesthetic beauty. Following this convention, two major categories have been taken to classify heritage: cultural and natural. And, in this regard, it is worth noting that the relationship between the concept of nature conservation and the preservation of cultural sites makes the ‘Convention for the World Heritage’ an effective tool to face challenges such as those related to climate change, uncontrolled urbanization, mass tourism, sustainable socioeconomic development and natural catastrophes, among others.
Cultural and natural heritage
Cultural heritage is made of cultural assets inherited by the past of a nation (heritage) as well as those created in the present and to which society grants special historical, scientific, symbolic or aesthetic importance. These can be of tangible nature (material realizations) or intangible (knowledge, techniques, memory, tradition …) (3). The natural heritage is constituted by the flora and fauna of a territory and includes natural monuments, geological or physiographic formations, places and areas such as biosphere reserves, natural monuments, national parks and nature sanctuaries.
“World Heritage” is the mark under which the United Nations Organization for Education, Science and Culture (UNESCO) has grouped these elements that, due to their outstanding qualities, have an “exceptional universal value” either from the point of view of history, art, science, environmental conservation or aesthetic beauty. With these a list has been compiled that to this date brings together more than a thousand sites that represent the diversity of our planet and the people who have inhabited it, showing the development of human history and celebrating the best of what we are and create.
Annually revised and updated, the list is divided into three categories: cultural, natural and mixed. Each new inclusion implies the compliance of a series of criteria, commitments and the subsequent receipt of benefits (logistical, financial and promotional) for each nation. This process is an important step in the management and heritage preservation efforts, since it involves both local communities and those that are in charge of the sites and national authorities. Beware, there have been cases where the breach of the agreement leads to the elimination of sites of this select group so this registration represents a great commitment.
The World Heritage List includes, to date, a total of 1,073 sites distributed among 167 ‘States Parties’. Of those registered: 832 are cultural, 206 are natural and 35 are mixed.
The benefits are many and among them stand out not only the access to aid and international funds, but the placement within the map of the most relevant tourist-cultural attractions in the world and therefore the opening to a new market with an influx of travelers interested in the value and authenticity of each destination, who usually have higher budgets than all-inclusive tourists and consume larger amounts in local or artisanal products.
In this regard, we questioned an employee of a newly restored site in Bayreuth / Germany about the changes between before and after her appointment as a World Heritage Site, and she confirmed that the waves of visits have been enhanced in such a way that they have exceeded all expectations, and that the increase is undoubtedly due to the interest that arose from the international public as a result of being included in the UNESCO list.
Is there a maximum number of sites that can be on the list?
No, it is clearly established that there is neither a minimum nor a maximum, because what matters is the exceptionality, authenticity and relevance of the sites, not their quantity. UNESCO has mentioned that it is seeking to level the balance between cultural and natural sites.
Why are not more destinations proposed?
There is a long wait for proposals and nominations and reaching this list it is itself a difficult achievement. In summary? First you have to meet the demanding criteria selection, then you must show why you have an exceptional value and finally have a management plan that demonstrates how it will be protected and improved.