UNESCO's World Heritage list continues to grow and there's no end in sight, writes Louise Southerden.
You've probably never heard of the Joggins Fossil Cliffs (in Nova Scotia, Canada), the Socotra Archipelago (in Yemen), Surtsey (a volcanic island south of Iceland) or the Temple of Preah Vihear (in Cambodia) but chances are you soon will because they are some of the recent additions to the UNESCO World Heritage List.
In July last year, 27 new sites (19 cultural and eight natural), ranging from railway lines and mountains to butterfly reserves, were inscribed on the list. That's fairly normal by World Heritage standards some years there are as many as 61 new entries (as in 2000), some years as few as seven (1989) but the list continues to grow, potentially diluting what "World Heritage" means.
There are now 878 World Heritage sites in 145 countries: 679 cultural sites, 174 natural sites and 25 sites that have both cultural and natural significance, such as Kakadu National Park and Machu Picchu. When the World Heritage Committee, made up of 21 member nations (including Australia), considers this year's nominations at its annual meeting from June 22-30 in Seville, Spain, even more will be added. There are 1461 places earmarked as World Heritage-worthy awaiting formal nomination, including two in Australia: Ningaloo Reef in north-west Western Australia and Australian Convict Sites, primarily in NSW and Tasmania.
The proliferation of sites around the world doesn't seem to have dampened enthusiasm for World Heritage listing, however, at least not within the travel industry.
"It's easy for a destination to boast that it has the best, the biggest, the most remote ... and these days consumers are conditioned to take these statements in advertising with a grain of salt," says New Caledonia Tourism (Australia) general manager Diane Moynihan. (Parts of New Caledonia's reef system were listed last year.) "But if a third party who is a world authority identifies and awards 'heritage status', it gives substance to the advertised messages."
Travellers use World Heritage listing as a guide to places worth visiting. Not only does listing guarantee inclusion in guidebooks, it's "a kind of quality assurance", says David O'Malley, chief executive of Australia's Coral Coast regional tourism organisation in Western Australia.
"If people know they are coming to a World Heritage site, they know they'll have a good experience there. And if sites meet the criteria for listing, in other words, if a place is listed for the right reasons, World Heritage listing is still meaningful."
Tourism organisations competing in the same market do try to differentiate one World Heritage site from another, says O'Malley.
"At Shark Bay [listed in 1991], we promote the fact that not only is it World Heritage-listed but it meets all four natural criteria," he says.
Tourism Tasmania promotes the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, listed in 1982, as satisfying seven out of a possible 10 criteria, more than any other World Heritage property on Earth. (Sites must satisfy at least one criterion to be listed.)
Of course, when the World Heritage List was conceived in 1972, its intention was not to spotlight potential tourist destinations. It was to preserve and protect places "of universal value to humanity".
But tourism and protection go together, even at recently listed sites.
"Since the designation of the Rideau Canal in June 2007, there has been a heightened sense of awareness ... the press coverage has been phenomenal," says Anne Marie Harbec, executive director of the historic 202-kilometre waterway near Ottawa, Canada.
Of course, some places don't need a World Heritage tick to put them on the tourism map. "I've never heard of people coming to the Great Barrier Reef [listed in 1981] just because it's a World Heritage area," says Port Douglas Daintree Tourism executive officer Doug Ryan. "But they come for the same reasons it is World Heritage listed: it is an incredibly unique place and the world's largest living organism."
World Heritage listing can raise awareness of lesser-known destinations, however.
Tourism WA's Coral Coast regional manager Simon Glossop says Ningaloo Reef (which will be nominated next year) doesn't have the same profile as, for example, the Great Barrier Reef.
"And there are no direct flights from Sydney or Melbourne so it's not really on people's radar," he says. "But World Heritage listing would raise its profile ... and communicate that it is a remote, ecologically sensitive location."
World Heritage designation brings plenty of economic benefits as well. A report released this month by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts, Peter Garrett, says Australia's 17 World Heritage properties generate $12 billion annually and sustain more than 120,000 jobs nationally.
Another side-effect of increasing World Heritage sites is that more travellers are keen to "tick off" as many as they can especially in Europe, which has exactly half the globe's World Heritage sites. Visitors to worldheritagesite.org, for instance, have collectively logged visits to 801 of the 878 World Heritage sites; the website's top site-bagger, Iain Jackson from Scotland, has personally visited 563 sites.
Leith Malcolm, who runs Perth-based inbound tour operator World Heritage Tours, says Japanese visitors are also hooked on the World Heritage angle.
"Some do want to collect bragger points," she says. "We had to create a tour for a small group that literally raced around sites in Western Australia and the Northern Territory in 10 days.
"But I think the majority of travellers are seeking an experience that will be off the beaten track; they might not be especially searching for a World Heritage-listed site or region but if they come across one, it does pique interest and may influence their final travel plans."
Of course, World Heritage listing isn't necessarily the best indication of what's worth seeing. Niagara Falls is not listed - despite attracting more than 17 million visitors annually. The Niagara Escarpment, however, is a UNESCO biosphere reserve - partly because it straddles the border of two countries (Canada has nominated it but the US hasn't).
Thirty sites are temporarily listed as World Heritage in Danger, many in war-torn countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan. More than half have been classified "in danger" since 2000 including, most recently, the Galapagos Islands, one of 12 original World Heritage sites listed in 1978. A UNESCO mission to the islands in 2007 found their integrity threatened by the "uncontrolled development of tourism".
Another recent development is that sites can lose their World Heritage status altogether. In 2007, the Arabian Oryx Sanctuary in Oman became the first site to be deleted from the World Heritage List, not because of excessive visitation but because of encroaching oil exploration. Other sites have been threatened with de-listing such as Victoria Falls, because Zimbabwe's chaotic political climate has led to unsustainable tourism and overdevelopment on the Zambian side of the falls.
But even if more sites lose their status, it's inevitable the World Heritage List will keep growing. By next year, there could be as many as 1000 sites. Will that be too many? Considering the cachet the World Heritage brand has around the world, perhaps not. As Richard Edwards, the director of Planeterra, a non-profit organisation run by GAP Adventures, suggests: "When you take into account the number of nations and unique places on our planet that people are interested in visiting, 878 sites is actually not that many."
ON THE WEB
For travel information on Northern Territory and West Australian World Heritage sites see worldheritagetoursandtravel.com.au.
AUSTRALIA'S WORLD HERITAGE AREAS
1. Great Barrier Reef, Qld (1981)
2. Kakadu National Park, NT (1981)
3. Willandra Lakes Region, NSW (1981)
4. Lord Howe Island Group, NSW (1982)
5. Tasmanian Wilderness (1982)
6. Gondwana Rainforests of Australia, NSW and Qld (1986)
7. Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park,NT (1987)
8. Wet Tropics of Queensland (1988)
9. Shark Bay, WA (1991)
10. Fraser Island, Qld (1992)
11. Australian Fossil Mammal Sites (Riversleigh/Naracoorte), Qld/SA (1994)
12. Heard and McDonald Islands (1997)
13. Macquarie Island, Tas (1997)
14. Royal Exhibition Building and Carlton Gardens, Vic (2004)
15. Greater Blue Mountains Area, NSW (2000)
16. Purnululu National Park, WA (2003)
17. Sydney Opera House, NSW (2007)