U.S. Wary of World-Heritage Status, Travel Editor Says

By Jonathan B. Tourtellot
National Geographic Traveler
Updated October 10, 2003

TravelWatch is produced by the geotourism editor for National Geographic Traveler magazine, Jonathan B. Tourtellot. TravelWatch focuses on sustainable tourism and destination stewardship. This column, updated for National Geographic News, appeared originally in the print magazine. Look for TravelWatch every other Friday.

"An attack on American sovereignty!" "Foreign bureaucrats stealing your personal rights!" "Invasion!" Gee whiz. What provokes all this anguish? The honor of winning designation as a World Heritage site, that's what. The cries of protest come from a misinformed American minority (more on their grief shortly), but to many others in the United States, it seems, the World Heritage label—awarded to the likes of Stonehenge, Vatican City, and the Great Wall of China—means nothing at all. Either way, that's a shame.

World Heritage status is conferred upon sites of "outstanding universal value" to humanity—a badge of uniqueness on a global scale. A country must nominate its own protected sites to win the designation. An international committee, independent of the United Nations, administers the program, aided by a small staff inside UNESCO, the UN cultural arm.

A World Heritage site can be a whole city or a single building, a cave or a canyon. It can be cultural or natural or a combination. The current count is 754 sites in 129 countries. The U.S. has 20—scant for its size—including Independence Hall, Yellowstone, and Olympic National Park in Washington State. But when I asked a state tourism official why her brochures didn't tout Olympic's World Heritage status, she said, "It doesn't seem to make any difference."

It sure does abroad, though. Portugal, for instance—a country smaller than Ohio—is the proud custodian of 12 World Heritage sites, and I mean proud. At every opportunity, brochures emphasize Patromónia Mundial—World Heritage. A while ago, I checked out the shiniest jewel in Portugal's World Heritage crown, the medieval city of Évora, where fortress walls ring a hill of jumbled spires and rooftops. I drove through one gate and detoured around a construction zone where workers were tearing up worn, old cobblestones, to be replaced with—brand-new cobblestones.

This town protects its heritage. Asphalt would have spoiled the 16th-century feel, Nuno Lopes, then city planner, explained to me in his city hall office. Évora is no museum, though. Seat of a university and main town of the Alentejo region, it draws plenty of commuters—a headache for Lopes. "Every day, 40,000 cars enter the walled city," he said. "Eventually, we would like it to be no cars." I tried not to look guilty.

As he talked, an unkempt, unshaven character shambled into the outer office and rummaged through papers. "That's Ernesto," said an unfazed Lopes, following my gaze. "He and his brother run the repaving. They are the best ones who still know how to do stones."

Outside, exploring the city, I saw Évora's traffic plan at work. Visitors can park in lots just outside the city walls and take shuttle buses, reducing congestion. "Patromónia Mundial" signs were everywhere, radiating local pride. I recalled something João Andrade Santos, head of the regional tourism board, had said: "Tourism can give you back part of your past and your identity."

So what's the problem with World Heritage in the U.S.?

Until 1995, the program—begun 30 years ago with a treaty called the World Heritage Convention—simply didn't get much notice stateside. The National Park Service handled the program, processing a modest number of applications, mostly for parks. Congress permitted no site involving private property to be nominated unless every owner agreed. That scotched Savannah's hope for listing its gracious historic district, with hundreds of homeowners. "Practically, it's infeasible to nominate a historic district under current law," said Jim Charleton, the National Park Service officer for World Heritage.

Then, in 1995, the World Heritage Committee announced that plans for a mine near Yellowstone, as well as other management problems, threatened the site. After Yellowstone was placed on the list of World Heritage in Danger, outraged property-rights advocates charged that the UN was dictating local policy. Radio talk shows whipped easily persuaded listeners into a paranoid lather, as if the committee were going to march in and herd Americans into some kind of UN Prison for the Ruggedly Individualistic.

In fact, World Heritage officials can't do anything except comment, declare a site "endangered"—that's free speech—or, as a last resort, withdraw a listing that has to be asked for in the first place. (They never have.) The Yellowstone mine site was later bought out, but the myth of an imperial UN lives on. "World Heritage does not supersede national authority, and that's explicit in Article Six of the Convention," states Charleton, a bit wearily. He has to keep reassuring people who actually fear an invasion of blue helmets and black helicopters. If there's a real threat, it's that the prestige and potential tourism income from a World Heritage listing might prompt Americans to stop an intrusive development, be it a mine or a high-rise. Those who defend such a development resent having attention called to it, and so they recite the UN-takeover fable.

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