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The Strange Bedfellows of Unesco World Heritage Sites


In Cairo last year, Melania Trump toured the Giza Pyramids, a Unesco World Heritage site. The author of the essay toured Unesco sites across five continents, noting how designations can increase tourism to an area but can also hurt a place’s physical integrity. ANDREA HANKS/White House

In the fall — before the caravan, before the firings, before the shutdown, before the wall — Melania Trump concluded her first solo goodwill tour with a photogenic visit to the Great Pyramid and Sphinx of Egypt, the only surviving complex of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

“It was a nice opportunity to see the pyramids in person, which are truly a historical treasure,” explained the American first lady, whose trip was intended to celebrate initiatives financed in Africa by the United States Agency for International Development. “We must always do our best to preserve such important historical sites, and I was so pleased to learn of the work that USAID has done to help with preservation efforts at the base of the Sphinx.”

Melania Trump’s endorsement of international preservation efforts carried particular weight, given the contradictory message telegraphed by her husband’s decision to take the US out of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization — Unesco — which administers the World Heritage program.

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Thanks to Congress’s refusal to accept the president’s draconian cuts to the Usaid budget, the client regime in Cairo could shore up one of its most celebrated sites. Countries less important to a major donor have to rely more on Unesco for help with their historic sites, though Unesco’s assistance is more about expertise and recognition than money.

The photographs of Melania Trump standing stylish and alone in front of Egypt’s most iconic backdrop — with nary a tourist, much less importunate camel-driver or souvenir seller in sight — seemed made to order for the Egyptian Tourism Authority. Egypt has at last reversed a nearly continuous six-year decline in tourist visits that left it with less than half the number of visitors it enjoyed in 2010.

Egyptians recognize that tourism itself is part of their national heritage. Egypt was the Grand Tour destination for Romans two millennia ago, just as Rome became a mecca for cultured young Englishmen of certain means in the 18th century.

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The 1960s-era bunker for the North Vietnamese Politburo at the Hanoi citadel. The space was used to plot war strategy against South Vietnam and the United States, Unesco’s expert advisory panel says.

If anything, Italy, with the world’s largest number of cultural World Heritage sites, 49, has today become the poster child for the dangers of global mass tourism, as gigantic cruise ships congest Venice’s canals, tourist hordes decamp around Pisa’s famous tower and mobs jostle aggressively for photogenic position in front of Rome’s Trevi fountain late into the night.

Unesco’s cultural preservationists are appalled. Egyptian tourist authorities are envious. Leaders in most developing countries fantasize about drawing just one percent of Italy’s tourist tide to their shores.

The historic center of Rome and the Giza Pyramids complex would draw millions of tourists a year even without the Unesco logo featured on their visitor brochures. Yet both these and other countries tirelessly pursue listing of new old sites in the hope of bringing travelers’ attention, and presumably dollars, to their less-touristed corners.

In 2018, Unesco’s World Heritage Committee approved 13 new cultural heritage sites, among them the 20th-century industrial city of Ivrea in northern Italy that the committee cited for its 1930s urban planners’ “modern vision of the relationship between industrial production and architecture.” (Who knew?)

At the same time, it also designated, en bloc, the dozen scattered “Hidden Christian sites in the Nagasaki region” in southwest Japan, said to “bear unique testimony to a cultural tradition nurtured by hidden Christians” during two centuries of harsh persecution; and the Thimlich Ohinga dry-stone-walled settlement in Kenya that “served as a fort for communities and livestock, but also defined social entities and relationships linked to lineage.”

The Kenya listing is one illustration of the “global strategy” for world heritage that Unesco adopted in 1994, after 10 years of study and debate, to pursue “the best ways of ensuring the representative nature, and hence the credibility, of the World Heritage List.”

In the two decades after approval of the 1972 World Heritage Convention, listings were overwhelmingly concentrated in Europe. In the quarter-century after adoption of the inclusive global strategy, the number of countries submitting sites for possible World Heritage designation grew from 33 to 183.

Unesco turns to expert panels on monuments for professional evaluation of the “integrity” and “authenticity” of proposed cultural heritage sites and for the adequacy of the management plans the applicant governments submit to ensure sites will be properly maintained. Curiously, the expert panels often express concern about protecting proposed sites against damage from tourism; the governments are usually proposing the sites to lure tourism.

Indeed, the very year that Unesco adopted its global strategy for identifying heritage sites in the developing world, the organization undertook its first joint meeting, on Silk Road tourism in Central Asia, with the World Tourism Organization, which was itself elevated to a full-fledged United Nations specialized agency in 2003, the UNWTO (to distinguish it from the World Trade Organization). Perhaps to the dismay of purists, heritage and tourism have become the yin and yang that yoke the two agencies.

Jebel Barkan in Sudan, one of two Unesco cultural sites in the counry, was a lonely place, the author writes, but “I was excited to see an actual Sudanese visitor exploring the Napatan pyramids.”  

Hoping to assay the merits and impact of Unesco recognition, I sought out 40 World Heritage sites across five continents, some natural but mostly cultural, hoping to see whether the partnership between heritage and tourism yielded dividends for countries off the beaten tourist track. Of the dozens of sites I have visited over the years, here are a few sites that reflect how that partnership can work:

• With a single World Heritage listing, Paraguay offers an instructive example. Its territory for a century and a half was the center of a radical experiment in social justice by the Jesuit order, in partnership with and protection of the Guaraní Indians, that Spanish authorities and land-grabbers destroyed in the mid-18th century. Paraguay applied for Unesco recognition of its three best preserved Jesuit mission sites, hoping for the same success Argentina has had with visitors to its similar San Ignacio Miní mission on the other side of the Paraná River, 30 kilometers away.

Moreover, with the huge numbers of visitors to the natural World Heritage site of Iguaçu Falls just 250 kilometers away — Brazil reports 1.8 million in 2018, including 100,000 each year from affluent Europe — Paraguayans thought they could register large gains in cultural tourism.

At the urging of its expert monuments panel, however, Unesco dropped one of the three component missions included in Paraguay’s proposal. Its omission provides a controlled experiment between the mission that was rejected, Saints Cosme and Damian, and the other two that were designated as the World Heritage site, Santísima Trinidad and Jesús de Tavarangue. Staff members at the latter shared with me their annual tourist influx: roughly 30,000 visitors a year, concentrated in the winter months (June to September), half of them from outside the continent.

There was no one else wandering the Unesco-listed missions when I visited, though a Japanese family attached to the embassy in Asunción arrived as I was leaving first one and then the other. At Cosme and Damian, the mission site passed over by Unesco, the only other visitors were a Paraguayan family. The one staffer onsite lamented that, for lack of Unesco recognition, total visitors were less than half the numbers at Trinidad and Tavarangue, with prized free-spending foreigners notably absent.

• Another country that boasts only one cultural World Heritage site, Mauritania, has similarly experienced a focused appeal to travelers. Deep in the trackless sands of the western Sahara, is a district of mountains and oases, the Adrar, with four medieval towns that served trans-Saharan caravans, recognized by Unesco for their “remarkably well preserved urban fabric, and houses with patios densely-packed into narrow streets around a mosque with a square minaret.” Chinguetti is perhaps the most notable of the towns, with an Islamic library second only to that of Mali’s more famous Timbuktu.

The minaret of a 13-century mosque in Mauritania.

Recent years’ strife in Mali has occasionally spilled over the border into Mauritania, making the Adrar seem a bit dicey even for the French and Italian touring adventurers who predominate among the visitors to Chinguetti. Direct air service to the region from Paris was suspended after a terrorism scare in 2017, and resumed only a month before my visit last winter, peak season for European visitors. During my two-day stay in Chinguetti, I seemed to be the only foreign visitor in town.

Sidi Khattry and Sylvette Cerisey, co-owners of the one accommodation in town built in traditional ksour (“castle”) architectural style, Gueïla, underscored to me that “the fact that Chinguetti is on UNESCO’s World Heritage list is important for attracting tourists to the region.” But while they credit Unesco’s demands for ensuring government preservation of the authenticity of the site itself, outside its walls “it is deplorable that no rule is in place for the respect of traditional architecture — lots of cement houses even in the old town, and lots of garbage.” The writ of international organizations, it seems, can run only so far.

• I was almost as lonely at Sudan’s two awesome cultural World Heritage sites, centered on ancient pyramids and temples of the Napatan and Meroe complexes, some dating to the eighth century B.C. I was excited to see an actual Sudanese visitor exploring the Napatan pyramids at Jebel Barkal. Foreign travel to Sudan was, admittedly, complicated by longstanding US financial sanctions that excluded the country from the international banking system. Till they were lifted, just weeks after my visit as Barack Obama was leaving the White House, visitors could only use the cash they brought with them.

• While Sudan drew 134,000 visitors in 2017 from Europe and the Americas, Ethiopia, next door, attracted 463,000. With eight Unesco cultural heritage sites — more than any other country in Africa, except Morocco — Ethiopia arguably possesses sub-Saharan Africa’s most varied and monumental sites, from first-century pagan-era obelisks at Aksum (of which Mussolini’s army had taken the largest as war booty to Rome in 1936 and returned by a foot-dragging Italian government in 2005) to 13th-century rock-hewn churches at Lalibela.

Unesco’s expert panels hail the authenticity of Ethiopia’s legendary monuments but warn about inattentive management that endangers the integrity of their preservation. A tour guide in Lalibela, Ermiyas Workye, welcomed the “promotion” among foreign travelers that results from Unesco listing but suggested an even bigger impact lies in the pressure Unesco puts on the government “to preserve the churches by following esthetic value and the churches’ historical sight.”

St. George’s church, hewn from the rock, in Lalibela, Ethiopia.

Politics find their way into the listing process, as a recent visit to Vietnam spotlighted. While sites like Vietnam’s pre-colonial imperial capital at Hué and its quaint 16th-century trading port of Hoi An won speedy Unesco recognition in the 1990s, Vietnam’s application for listing the millennium-old imperial citadel in Hanoi was approved only in 2010.

The experts of the review panel noted that little “authentic” remained at the site: French administrators had demolished the imperial palace and erected a contemporary Western administrative building, in which a bunker was installed in the 1960s for the security of the North Vietnamese Politburo as it plotted war strategy “against South Vietnam and the United States.” The bunker is arguably the most meticulously maintained and officially venerated part of the complex.

The monuments panel acknowledged the site’s “witness” to the unique process of cultural development at the crossroads of Indochina, but charged that its “authenticity” was “confused by the predominant presence of later buildings” and the display on the grounds of US military aircraft captured from the fallen Saigon government.

Despite nearby archaeological excavations that have unearthed significant remains dating to the eighth century, the review panel judged the case for listing the citadel site “insufficiently justified” and government plans for site management too vague and general. The government anticipated that with Unesco inscription, the site would generate $1.2 million a year in ticket sales, and it had financial commitments from Japan and France to address concerns about integrity. Impressed by such support, the World Heritage Committee approved designation.

Despite Washington’s on-again, off-again relationship with Unesco, the US has sustained its participation in the agency’s world heritage subsidiary. Eight of the 23 World Heritage sites in the US were approved during the two decades when Washington was a nonmember after 1984.

Still, amid white nationalist charges that World Heritage designation gives foreigners control over American soil, the National Park Service downplays the link and takes pains to assure suspicious Americans that Unesco’s “designations do not affect how Mesa Verde or other World Heritage sites are managed — the United States retains full jurisdiction over these sites and any related management decisions.”

Rather less visible to clamorous sovereigntists is the assistance the US has quietly provided to favored developing countries to promote sustainable tourism, which Usaid unabashedly declares is one of the developing world’s “top five export income-earning categories.”

To be sure, the financial drain on American taxpayers is not huge. The investment in Egypt’s cultural heritage and tourism that so pleased Melania Trump at Giza has amounted to just $12.6 million over three years. White House calls to slash Usaid’s budget have been rebuffed by appropriators of both political parties. It is clear that, by her visit, the first lady aimed to lend her support to the preservationist pushback.

This is an opinion essay.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Jeffrey Laurenti was senior fellow at the Century Foundation on international affairs for eight years. He is the author of numerous monographs on subjects such as international peace and security, terrorism, UN reform and international law and justice. He was executive director of policy studies at the United Nations Association of the United States until 2003, and then served seven years on the association’s board of directors. He also served as deputy director of the United Nations Foundation’s UN and Global Security initiative.

Laurenti is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and was candidate for the US House of Representatives from New Jersey in 1986. He has co-edited and contributed to “Breaking the Nuclear Impasse: New Prospects for Security Against Weapons Threats” and “Power and Superpower: Global Leadership and Exceptionalism in the 21st Century.”
His articles and analysis have appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and on National Public Radio, the BBC, France24, Al Jazeera, Russia Today and other international media and policy journals.

Graduated Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude in government from Harvard University, he earned his master’s degree in public affairs from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. He speaks Spanish, Italian, French, and Portuguese.

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