The Curse of Approval

In 1240, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II built his military fortress, Castel del Monte, on a lonely hill in central Puglia, where he had a perfect view of approaching enemies. He probably never envisioned it would become a major destination--or that the enemies might be tourists. But these days, the old castle has been polished clean, and hundreds of multicolored Pullman buses snake up the winding roads to its grounds, now scattered with T-shirt stands, Coca-Cola signs and a 200-car parking lot. In fact, all over this usually desolate part of southern Italy, tourists scurry between such stops as the conical trullo houses in Alberobello and the cave ruins of Matera in nearby Basilicata--all sites few would have heard of if not for the fact that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has christened them World Heritage destinations.

Officially, UNESCO bestows the honor on places that exemplify an area's ancestry, with the purpose of ensuring they are preserved. Unofficially, designation is a kind of fairy dust that often turns little-known cultural gems into overnight tourist sensations, fostering intense competition among places to get listed. That is not always a good thing. "Sometimes a site becomes so attractive it becomes impossible to visit or appreciate," says Francesco Bandarin, director of the UNESCO World Heritage Center. "This is the big problem in generating tourist traffic."

Indeed, there is growing concern that World Heritage designation may in the end do more harm than good. Lisa Mastny, senior adviser to the World Watch Institute, says tourism is a double-edged sword for places considered of "outstanding value to humanity. It offers many impoverished communities the chance to reap financial rewards, but also threatens the very resources--human and natural--upon which the industry is ultimately built." The already popular Mayan ruins of Chichén Itzá in Mexico, for example, saw a massive influx of tourists after UNESCO declared them a World Heritage site in 1988. With more than 5,000 visitors a day, the ruins have turned into a Disney-esque mecca. Worse, they are being sorely threatened by the wear and tear of relentless foot traffic, not to mention outright vandalism.

The biggest problem is that there is virtually no money attached to World Heritage status. After places win the designation--a laborious bureaucratic process that takes nearly five years from the time they are nominated--they are left on their own financially. Funds are available from the World Heritage Trust in the form of loans, or through private organizations like Ted Turner's United Nations Foundation. But competition is fierce; in the 27 years since UNESCO designated the first 12 World Heritage sites, the list has grown to 812 today. Under smart government management, some of the increase in tourist dollars is invested in preserving the sites--as in Rome, where visitors' entrance fees go directly into maintenance.

But Rome is an anomaly. The majority of World Heritage sites are in developing countries, often besieged by corruption, civil strife and extreme poverty. Furthermore, natural or manmade disasters can thwart even the best-laid plans. The Iranian government, for instance, was unable to recover from the earthquakes that destroyed the cultural heritage site of Bam last year. Australia's Great Barrier Reef and Nepal's Mount Everest, both World Heritage sites, are considered endangered due to climate change, which cannot be reversed by single governments.

There is growing awareness that assigning UNESCO designation is worthless--or worse, counterproductive--without some kind of follow-up preservation program. "In the early days there wasn't much attention given to what would happen once these sites became World Heritage," says Joseph King, director of the sites unit at the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM), based in Rome. Slowly, that's changing. In sub-Saharan Africa, a 12-year training program called Africa 2009 is currently underway to teach locals not only how to preserve their immovable cultural heritage, but how to use it for economic development. In Eastern Europe, where tourism is a relatively new commodity, cities are looking for help in figuring out where to draw the line between preserving historical centers and fostering urban development. Tomas Hajek, director of the Czech National Monument Protection Office, favors allocating one specific district as a commercial center and concentrating all new buildings there. "Prague will lose its magic if we allow tall modern buildings to blot the skyline," he says. "Being included in the UNESCO list is a safeguard for protecting our heritage--although there is very strong pressure from developers."

For its part, UNESCO is trying its best to turn all 812 World Heritage sites into exemplary models of preservation. The irony, of course, is that it needs tourism to do it. It has recently teamed with companies like Expedia and Jet Tours in an attempt to market World Heritage site tours, and, more important, to teach tourists to be responsible when visiting these places. It has also worked with ICCROM and other agencies to lobby guidebook editors such as Michelin and Lonely Planet to include an instruction page for visiting heritage sites. Among the obvious tips they want to promote: "Don't remove any artifacts" and "Don't mock the locals." "It's important for the tourists to understand that these sites have been there a long, long time," says ICCROM's King. And with some effort, they'll remain for a long time to come.