It's supposed to be the gold standard for conservation. But is Unesco's World Heritage project harming the very places it seeks to protect? Simon Usborne investigates

In 1991, Dubrovnik, a fairytale fortress of Titians, Renaissance palaces and lemon-scented cloisters, was shelled by Serb and Montenegrin forces. Appalled by the siege of a city described by Lord Byron as the "pearl of the Adriatic", the international community sprung into action.

Unesco, the United Nations organisation responsible for education, science and culture, called meetings, co-ordinated fundraising, and mobilised armies of experts. Not long after the dust of war had settled on scores of razed buildings, Croatia began restoration work. In a matter of a few years, Dubrovnik, designated as a World Heritage Site in 1979, rose from the ashes.

That's how the system is meant to work. Since its inception, 37 years ago, Unesco World Heritage has become a global brand whose seal is slapped on the planet's most precious places. The Taj Mahal is on the list, alongside the Pyramids of Giza and the Grand Canyon. These are the man-made and natural wonders considered to be of such outstanding value to humanity that their importance transcends borders, politics – and even economics. They are deemed deserving of the ultimate layer of protection – to be placed beyond the reach of polluters, developers, looters, bombers, and the ravages of time. The World Heritage seal is a guarantee of preservation.

At least that's the perception. But now many within the conservation community are convinced Unesco is failing. They say the moribund organisation is teetering on its once sound foundations as its principles and priorities crumble under the weight of bureaucracy and outside influence. The World Heritage emblem has come to represent a grandiose marketing tool – fodder for "things to see before you die" coffee-table books.

Just last week, a row erupted over St Kilda, a remote, Unesco-protected island in the Outer Hebrides. When plans were announced to open a visitor centre on nearby Harris, St Kilda's local guardians, the National Trust for Scotland, feared an influx of World Heritage Site-bagging tourists could damage the site. Elsewhere in the world, less scrupulous custodians desperate for tourist dollars campaign to be included in Unesco's sacred list without preparing for the inevitable hordes.

At its worst, its most vocal critics say, World Heritage is a lame duck in a straitjacket, incapable of protecting the world's truly endangered places.


To understand what World Heritage has become, we must trace its utopian origins. The spirit of reaching across borders to protect places of global imprtance was inspired by the rescue of the 13th-century BC temples of Abu Simbel in Egypt. In 1954, Cairo announced plans to build a dam at Aswan that would flood the temples, so Unesco launched an international fundraising campaign to relocate them, brick by brick. The success inspired a string of projects – in countries as diverse as Italy, Pakistan and Indonesia. Finally, at a UN conference in Stockholm in 1972, that spirit of conservation was crystallised as the World Heritage Convention. The first World Heritage Sites were named in 1978

Today there are 878 of them, in 145 countries. Dubrovnik is one of dozens of success stories – others include the diversion of a proposed road near the Pyramids and the halting of an aluminium plant near Delphi. But it is in Japan that we gain the clearest insight into the way Unesco is failing.

The Iwami Ginzan silver mine was at the heart of a boomtown in the south-west of Honshu Island in the 1600s. But then its fortunes faded and a nearby forest drew in after the mine closed in 1923. By the 1970s, Iwami resembled a ghost town, and might have been forgotten, but for the Yen signs in the eyes of the tourist authorities. In 2007, after intense lobbying in Tokyo, a hole in the ground, of which most Japanese were entirely unaware, joined the ranks of the Taj and the Great Wall of China as a World Heritage Site.

So how did Iwami ever make the list? How does any site get "inscribed", to use Unesco-speak? If there is one fatal flaw in the whole process it is that countries submit their own nominations for inclusion. So when local businessman Toshiro Nakamura made it his life's mission to turn Iwami into a tourist attraction, the suits at the local prefecture were all ears. They used their links with diplomats in Tokyo to make a case for Iwami within Unesco's World Heritage Committee.

Unesco, it must be stressed, has strict selection criteria. New sites, which are named every summer, must prove they are of "outstanding universal value" by meeting at least one of 10 criteria. For example, a site must "bear a unique testimony to a cultural tradition" or "represent a masterpiece of human creative genius". Japan argued that Iwami passed not one but three of these tests. But the International Council on Monuments and Sites, which advised the World Heritage Committee, disagreed, stating that Iwami satisfied none of the 10 criteria. But the campaigning from Japan continued, and Iwami was inscribed.

In the following year, almost 1 million people brought their cameras shoes, picnic baskets – and wallets – to Iwami. Before that, visitor numbers mostly comprised curious locals, and averaged about 15,000 a year. Tourists were bussed into a site without a suitable facilities; in one news report, a weary resident recalled returning home to find three visitors sitting on his sofa, having mistaken his house for part of the tour. Many tourists, apparently expecting a site to rival the Pyramids, left disappointed.

It's easy to see why businesses and tourism officials are so desperate to get the Unesco stamp. As Iwami demonstrates, mention of the magic words "World Heritage Site" in guidebooks can send visitor numbers rocketing. As one conservationist responsible for a British World Heritage site, who preferred not to be named, put it: "A site that will not be of interest to paying visitors isn't going to be a priority. Unesco wants people to go there. They call it public education. We call it tourism."


The Tower of London is one of Britain's 28 World Heritage Sites. Others include Maritime Greenwich, Hadrian's Wall and Canterbury Cathedral. On a grey Wednesday morning, on the cobbled road between the Thames and Traitor's Gate, where Anne Boleyn and Sir Thomas More were delivered to the fortress prison, hundreds of tourists are forming a queue. Most aren't even aware of the Tower's Unesco status – the biggest sites don't need help drawing visitors – but Jim and Rachel Smucker, an American couple from New Jersey, are preparing to tick the tower off their list of World Heritage Sites. "We've must have been to dozens by now," says Jim. "It's nice to know the place you're going to is going to be worth seeing and has good protection."

Many tourists go a step further, seeking out "sightings" like wildlife enthusiasts on safari. Ten years ago, a Dutch woman called Els Slots set up, a portal for "WHS-baggers". In an email from the United States, where she is adding to her list of 310 sites, she explains the attraction. "We do it because it's a list of things you can tick off, like bird-watching or plane-spotting. I'm not interested in birds or planes, but have always been fascinated by foreign lands and their cultures and history."

That's fine if a site can cope, but for every Tower of London there is an Iwami silver mine, or, if the Hebridean visitor centre takes off, a St Kilda. And it's not just small sites that struggle with the tourist hordes. Angkor is among the most spectacular of all World Heritage Sites. The sprawling Cambodian complex of stone temples, which includes the magnificent spires of Angkor Wat, is a jewel in South-east Asia. A World Heritage Site since 1992, Angkor now receives more than 2 million tourists a year. The neighbouring town of Siem Reap has been transformed into a concrete mass of hotels, restaurants and an international airport. Meanwhile, the ancient stones at the temples are being slowly worn away by millions of flip-flops and walking boots.

Even Unesco admits it was caught "off guard" at Angkor. "All our efforts were focused on restoration because Angkor was in a poor state when we inscribed it," says Francesco Bandarin, the director of Unesco's World Heritage Centre. "Nobody looked at the urban explosion that was happening in Siem Reap." Bandarin says Unesco now has a commission dedicated to site management at Angkor but, as he concedes, "we only have moral power. We advise and recommend action, but these are light guns – it's up to Cambodia to listen."

Unesco's "light guns" draw a lot of criticism. "They only have limited tools for scaring governments," says Jeff Morgan, executive director of the Global Heritage Fund, an American non-profit conservation group. "And they rarely use them". Unesco's ultimate sanction is to remove a site from its list. But in almost 40 years, during which it has inscribed almost 900 sites, the organisation has only pulled the trigger once. The Arabian Oryx Sanctuary was struck off in 2007 when oil exploration swallowed up 90 per cent of the reserve.

Short of expulsion, Unesco can place sites on its World Heritage In Danger list. Dubrovnik made an appearance soon after the shells breached its red-tiled walls. Today, 30 sites appear on the list. Those in Jerusalem, Iraq and Afghanistan are to be expected, but a notable inclusion is Germany's Dresden Elbe Valley. In 2006, a proposed new bridge that would damage the integrity of the valley, which is dotted with palaces and remnants of the industrial revolution, lead Unesco to declare it "In Danger".

The German example exposes yet more flaws in Unesco's operation. If World Heritage is the biggest brand in conservation, then tourists and others can reasonably expect its "In Danger" list to comprise the world's most threatened sites. "It's just not true," says Morgan. "Who cares about a bridge in Dresden when you could go to Cambodia and see unprotected sites being looted as we speak? You're looking at a dismal picture."


Monte Albán, which casts a shadow over the ancient city of Oaxaca, is one of the most important Zapotec metropolises in Mexico, with a history that spans 13 centuries. Its pyramid-like remains are adorned with rare script. Much of the site has been conserved but it is now under threat, as exposed carvings documenting an ancient civilisation are eroded by the elements. Recent civil unrest in Oaxaca has resulted in looting and vandalism and, in 2006, smoke and ash from a nearby fire damaged the remains. Inscribed in 1987, Monte Albá*is a worthy World Heritage Site. But, despite damage and the threat of destruction, it does not appear on Unesco's "In Danger" list.

It's not alone. Every year, The World Monuments Fund (WMF), a non-governmental conservation group based in New York, publishes a "watch list" of the world's 100 most-endangered sites. Tellingly, only three places – in Iraq, Afghanistan and Tanzania – appear on its most recent list, published last year, as well as Unesco's "In Danger" list. Seventy-nine of the WMF endangered sites are not even inscribed by World Heritage. Most worryingly for those on the ground who devote their lives to preserving sites in peril, 18 of WMF's at-risk sites, including Monte Albán, are World Heritage Sites but do not appear on Unesco's list (see box, below).

Because countries submit the sites they want to be inscribed, often to boost tourism, Unesco has no power to step in to protect places nobody else cares about. Unesco insists it "has most of the important sites", but does not claim to have a monopoly on preservation. It also says comparisons with other organisations are unfair. "Sometimes I envy my friends at WMF, who can do what they want because they don't have 86 member states. It's like comparing a government ministry to an NGO."

But it gets worse. If "light guns" mean countries can push the boundaries of the Heritage Convention without real risk of reproach, who's making sure that sites that do fall under the Unesco umbrella are properly managed? On paper, they should be, but the reality on the ground can be different. "If you go to a lot of World Heritage sites and ask for management plans with budgets and priorities, they don't exist," says another conservationist, who asked not to be named. "I've been to places in Guatemala, Pakistan, India and Iraq that don't even have basic maps. I've also seen plenty of sites where modern cement and unskilled techniques are being used for restoration. And this is in 2009."


Unesco insists all its sites adhere to strict rules about management and planning, but could it be that the task facing the organisation – effectively to protect the planet – has become so daunting as to be impossible? If it has, the man in charge must have one of the toughest jobs in the world. Speaking from his Paris office, Francesco Bandarin admits it's a tall order. "Sometimes you feel it's impossible to control everything, especially when you look at our founding principles," he says. "Our list is growing and the number of requests is growing, and it seems like the more work you do the more you get. It's a very big job – too big."

Bandarin suggests a solution would be to maintain a central committee, but to break some of the bureaucracy by handing partial autonomy to an "effective network of heritage institutes". Unesco has launched a review of its practises and Bandarin expects big changes by 2012, when World Heritage turns 40. "It's the only way we can cope with the crazy volume of work," he says.

Some critics don't believe in reform because the idea of "world heritage" is philosophically flawed. Robert Adam is one of Britain's leading traditional architects and has attended Unesco conferences. He calls the organisation's heritage body a "monster quango" and a "cabal". "Who owns heritage?" he asks. "We're moving to a system of governance by groups of unelected experts – Unesco helps to generate policy that goes into national government that often runs contrary to the wishes of citizens. But it's communities that own heritage."

Jeff Morgan at Global Heritage does not support such a radical view, but believes bigger changes than those proposed by Bandarin are necessary. The biggest problem, he says, is Unesco's failure to tap philanthropists and corporations. "If you're Coca-Cola, you don't want to sink money into the Unesco bureaucracy," Morgan says. He cites the case of Dan Pallotta, the author of Uncharitable, published earlier this year. Pallotta shook up the American charity sector by staging mass cycling events to raise more than $300m for health charities. But criticism from other charities about profits drove him out of business and good causes saw funds dry up. "Pallotta showed that charities are screwed up because they can't run like businesses," Morgan says. "He couldn't criticise from the inside, so had to write a book. That's the situation Unesco finds itself in. They can't rock the boat because if they start showing all the damage that's being done to many of their sites, they'll look bad."

Morgan says Unesco is woefully under-funded, but that the entire heritage industry lacks cash. "If you add up the funds available to the main players in preservation, you're looking at $100m a year. It's pretty abysmal if you compare that to nature conservation, where you're talking billions." Until balance is restored, Morgan insists Unesco could direct funds to more worthy places by ditching what he calls a bias for religious buildings and glamorous sites in the developed world. "Do we really need another cathedral preserved?" he asks. "I'm not worried about Stonehenge or Dresden when you look at the hundreds of major sites in poor countries that are deteriorating to the point of non-existence."

Morgan ends with a "school report" for Unesco. "Their mission is in three parts," he says. "First, they manage the list, for which they get a B-plus – there are some weird sites but they do a pretty good job. Then they monitor and enforce. I'll give them a B for monitoring, but a D for enforcement because they have no teeth. Finally, they preserve, which you can't even score them for because they have no money. The bottom line is that you need a strong network of conservation groups, led by Unesco, to provide a safety net for the most endangered sites in the countries with the least resources." Unless Unesco pulls up its socks, the price of failure could be more damaging to the cause of world heritage than the bombs that battered Dubrovnik.