Anyone who's gone through the process of researching and planning an international vacation has undoubtedly come across the term "UNESCO World Heritage Site" among more popular places to visit around the globe. The title implies an obvious air of importance and marks an area of interest that is almost certain to impress even the most unflappable tourist. Gracing the likes of places such as the historical center of Rome and Stonehenge in the UK with a UNESCO badge designates the location as a "must-visit" on anyone's vacation agenda and the label is highly coveted among worthwhile travel attractions. But despite the prevalence of the exalted tag and its perceived esteem, just what exactly is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and what makes the laurel so illustrious?
UNESCO World Heritage Sites 101
All throughout the world, from the Americas to the Middle East, one can find objects and areas of interest that are intriguing, inspiring, and well-worth a visit. International touring provides a fantastic opportunity for exploration and travelers delight in experiencing everything from the most famous big city museums to quaint rural villages. There are countless locales and venues to discover, all uniquely fascinating in their own rite and representative of the culture to which they belong, but the appeal of certain special spots transcend political delineations and offer a universal representation of the legacy of humanity and the heritage of our existence on planet Earth.
Such places certainly warrant special attention from the international community and this is where the United Nations serves a valuable purpose. Created in 1946, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization embarked on a mission "to create the conditions for dialogue among civilizations, cultures and peoples, based upon respect for commonly shared values." And, according to UNESCO's official website; "to contribute to the building of peace, the eradication of poverty, sustainable development and intercultural dialogue through education, the sciences, culture, communication and information."
It was in the name of this mission that the establishment of World Heritage Sites began. Highlighting the importance of global unity through education and awareness, almost 1000 locations populate UNESCO's World Heritage list to date spanning hundreds of countries all around the world. The distinction can belong to anything from a place or region to a city to a monument or building but the underlying cause is to bring international attention to the preservation and/or conservation of the honoree as a "site of outstanding universal value." There is a comprehensive list of criteria used to determine the status of a World Heritage Site based on natural and cultural qualifications and the designations are highly valuable to national tourism industries. The list is not set in stone, though, and while new sites are added all the time, the privilege of the UNESCO identification can also be taken away.
Questionable Priorities in Edinburgh
The magnificent city of Edinburgh, Scotland was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995 and just a quick glance at the downtown area makes it easy to see why. Modern offices and apartments coexist in an odd but charming harmony with ancient medieval structures throughout and over 4,000 historically significant buildings pepper the area. A quick walk or drive around town can yield some of the greatest examples of architectural heritage in the country, including stunning attractions like the Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood Palace. In the 20 years since gaining World Heritage Site status, Edinburgh's tourism industry has grown by leaps and bounds, and for good reason! But an unbalanced focus on accommodating the ever-increasing number of incoming tourists may threaten the very qualities which make Edinburgh such a cultural and historic gem.
UNESCO selects candidates for its World Heritage Site list based on universal value to the culture and legacy of humanity and, once selected, a given location becomes an international priority in terms of preserving its precious historic contributions. While many sites are out of the way or located in remote regions where natural conservation is more simple to implement, the issue of maintaining historical significance is much more complicated in Edinburgh, where plans for developing towering new hotels and sprawling business districts have already displaced some of the city's timeless landmarks.
It seems that the old must make way for the new in an age where economic opportunities are few and far between, but the gradual disestablishment of Edinburgh's historical locus will almost certainly put it at risk of losing its place on UNESCO's prestigious list.