for National Geographic News
The National Geographic Society's Center for Sustainable Destinations has released a scorecard ranking the world's top natural and cultural treasures.
(Related photos: See the top and bottom five.)
Jonathan Tourtellot, geotourism editor of National Geographic Traveler magazine, spearheaded the survey, which solicited findings from more than 400 experts in sustainable tourism on nearly a hundred UN World Heritage sites.
The United Nations began naming World Heritage sites in 1973 to help preserve grand palaces like France's Versailles, remnants of ancient civilizations such as Peru's Machu Picchu, and natural wonders like Australia's Great Barrier Reef, Tourtellot explains.
But over the years some of the sites have struggled to maintain the unique character that landed them on the list, due to funding shortfalls, heavy tourist traffic, or political strife.
To assess how those locations are faring in the 21st century, Tourtellot asked experts to assess 94 of the 830 officially designated sites.
The highest scorers have one thing in common, Tourtellot says: a local community committed to preserving its priceless landmark.
"Some places have very heavy tourist traffic and still score welllike the Alhambra [in Spain]," Tourtellot noted.
"Among those that scored well, you find the people argue a lot about character-of-place issues, and those arguments can be very constructive."
(Both Traveler and National Geographic News are divisions of the National Geographic Society.)
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