Best, Worst World Heritage Sites Ranked
for National Geographic News
|November 15, 2006|
The National Geographic Society's href="http://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/sustainable/">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."
The results of the survey appear in the November/December issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine.
(Both Traveler and National Geographic News are divisions of the National Geographic Society.)
Spain's 14th century Moorish palace, the Alhambra, earned the second highest score, behind Norway's West Fjords near the coastal town of Ålesund.
(See Norway map.)
The survey's panelists, whose comments were submitted anonymously, noted that the Alhambra is faring well because the community that hosts itthe town of Granadahas resisted commercializing its top tourist attraction.
Wrote one panelist: "Redevelopment of the city over the past 20 years has been broadly sympathetic to the ancient Moorish core, and although the number of outlets catering [to the] tourist trade has increased noticeably, the city does retain a coherent Andalusian character."
Even the rural destinations topping the list, such as the remote parks and gateway towns that make up New Zealand's Te Wahipounamu region, benefit when the local community feels it has a stake in the site, the panelists agreed.
Of the coastal destination on New Zealand's South Island, one panelist noted: "There is no issue with local people not protecting it; they are all active protectors. All tourists need reminding that they are entering an exceptional place, that it is a privilege to be there."
Mexico's colonial city of Guanajuato was the fifth on the list and was the most improved destination since the Center for Sustainable Destinations conducted its last survey in 2004.
In spite of development, the city has worked to preserve its local color, the experts said. One panelist noted that the streets have been repaved in recent years in a traditional fashion. Panelists also praised the hotels, which are largely old, rehabilitated buildings in the city center.
The bottom scorers highlight the host of problems that some sites have yet to tackle, ranging from environmental damage to political trouble, the experts said.
The Potala Palace in Tibet earned the fourth worst score, because while it remains an architectural gem, the city of Lhasa has lost its cultural integrity as a result of Chinese efforts to eradicate Tibetan culture, the panelists said.
Meanwhile, the Spanish colonial ruins at Portobelo/San Lorenzo in Panama, the second worst scorer, have degraded under the pressures of overbuilding and deforestation in the surrounding national park.
Nepal's Kathmandu Valley came in dead last for the dense air pollution and modern construction that surrounds many ancient temples there.
But Ecuador's Galápagos Islands, which earned the third lowest score, experienced the biggest drop-off of any site since the 2004 survey.
Panelists said that although the Galápagos maintain 95 percent of their native species, invasive species of plants and animals pose a serious threat to the islands.
Johannah Barry, president of the Virginia-based nonprofit Galápagos Conservancy, said new residents in the Galápagos are bringing domestic animals and plants to the fragile island ecosystem.
"Introductions become problematic because the species here have evolved in isolation, and so they don't have a lot of defenses," Barry said.
Likewise, she notes, nonnative insects have hitched rides with tourists on boats to the islands, and many of the bugs have established themselves as a threat to native species.
New efforts to enforce quarantines and inspections of tourist boats are in place, Barry added, but the programs are "not terribly well funded."
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