‘Unesco-cide’: How World Heritage Status Harm’s Cities and Heritage

‘Unesco-cide’: Does World Heritage Status Do Cities More Harm than Good?

Laignee Barron | August 30, 2017

Many of the 1,052 destinations across the world that have been stamped with United Nations world heritage status struggle to strike the balance between the economic benefits of catering to visitors and preserving the culture that drew the recognition.

The heritage designation began in 1972 to identify and protect places “of outstanding universal value”. However, by raising the international profile of a location, the label also fuels a rush of visitors and opens the door to commercialisation that can dilute the site’s authenticity.

“It is an inevitable destiny: the very reasons why a property is chosen for inscription on the world heritage list are also the reasons why millions of tourists flock to those sites year after year,” wrote Francesco Bandarin, the former world heritage director at Unesco, in a 2002 manual called Managing Tourism at World Heritage Sites.

The phenomenon has even been given a name by Italian writer Marco d’Eramo, who argues that Unesco preserves buildings but allows the communities around them to be destroyed, often by tourism. He calls it “Unesco-cide”.

Laos’ Luang Prabang, for example, a world heritage town of around 50,000 people, now expects to attract more than 700,000 tourists by 2018. Researcher Chloe Maurel has written about the adverse affects of the status on the historic Casco Viejo neighbourhood in Panama City, which relegated its poorest inhabitants to the city limits following its Unesco validation – while the central district was flooded with tourists.

National Geographic has collated examples such as Xian, China, site of the famous terracotta warriors, where a poorly situated new museum may have negatively impacted the precious site. Writers Lauri Hafvenstein and Brian Handwerk also pointed to the controversial activity close to the Belize’s Barrier Reef, where developers are closing in and exploiting the region’s world heritage status to sell swamp land to customers over the internet.

For George Town and its clan jetties, the Unesco imprimatur seemingly provided a second wind. Established as the straits base for the British East India Company in 1786, the outpost attracted swells of artisans, sailors and traders in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Fishermen and porters from southern China’s Fujian province carved out an enclave above the reclaimed seafront. Each extended family – or clan – occupied their own jetty, and the makeshift settlements grew as relatives emigrated and added to the stilt homes interconnected by a wooden walkway. …

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