There are too many World Heritage Sites

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The Independent Online

Our money may be stable, but everything else is suffering from inflation. Job titles: Alastair Campbell, who might, when people understood the value of understatement, have been described as the Prime Minister's press spokesman, is now his Director of Communications and Strategy. Exam grades: an official report has found A-levels are easier, and ministers want to bring in an A* grade, the academic equivalent of the new franc that replaced 100 old francs in 1960.

And now World Heritage Sites. To be fair to Unesco, the United Nations' culture club that certifies these places as the jewels of humankind's inheritance, an attempt was made last year to control the number of new sites. Only 31 were added in 2001, as against the 61 the year before. And this year, Tessa Jowell, the Culture Secretary, is only allowed one nomination, as against the three cultural sites and one natural one awarded to the UK last year. She is proposing Kew Gardens.

The Independent has nothing against Kew Gardens, an important scientific resource and a lovely day out. But the number of World Heritage Sites already stands at 721, which does not quite have the same ring as the pre-inflationary equivalent. Would anyone have noticed had Herodotus written of the 721 wonders of the world?

There are now too many World Heritage Site. The title should be reserved for the truly wondrous, such as the Acropolis, Stonehenge and the Taj Mahal. Kew Gardens or, say, the fortifications of St George in Bermuda, do not fit the bill, fascinating as they are. The expanding list is also heavily biased towards Europe: Spain has 36; Italy has 34; France has 27; Britain has 24.

That was a problem in Herodotus's day, of course: his seven were biased towards Greece (which still boasts 16 World Heritage Sites). But he did not know about other great civilisations, whereas we do. The World Heritage label is debased and biased coinage, amounting to little more than an endorsement of commercial tourism interests. It can recover some of its value, however. The shift towards listing and protecting natural sites in recent years should be accelerated. But the Eurocentric assumptions of the cultural "world heritage" should be diluted; Unesco should declare Europe's lists closed and turn outward to the rest of the world.

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