Is a UNESCO World Heritage Designation a Blessing or a Curse?

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This article is part of our special report on the Art for Tomorrow conference in the Italian cities of Florence and Solomeo.


MOMBASA, Kenya — It is a tale of three cities.

To the north up the Kenyan coast is Lamu Town, its small streets humming with the sounds of chisels and hammers crafting Swahili doors, and donkeys carrying heavy loads of coral limestone. Locals and tourists jockey for space in the zigzagging alleys, with shops selling everything from silver jewelry to body products made with locally grown baobab.

Down the coast, in neighboring Tanzania, is Stone Town of Zanzibar, with its bustling fish market, where hauls of octopus and snapper come in daily from dhow boats, and countless Polish, English, Italian and Mandarin-speaking travelers shuffle through on tours that also take them to a memorial near the site of the city’s former slave market.

And between the two sits Old Town Mombasa and at its eastern tip, Fort Jesus, an imposing 16th-century structure built by the Portuguese, its multiple openings offering glorious views of the Indian Ocean, and gentle breezes that help stave off the coastal heat.

But while these streets are busy, too, here in Old Town Mombasa, it’s mostly locals, unlike in the other two locales, where throngs of tourists flood the streets.

Lamu Old Town, Stone Town of Zanzibar and Fort Jesus are all UNESCO World Heritage sites, with Old Town Mombasa serving as a buffer zone, but Mombasa, unlike Lamu and Stone Town, is more of a stopover point en route to the Swahili Coast, an expanse of shoreline stretching from Somalia to Mozambique. So, any expectations locals might have had, of tourism arising from Fort Jesus becoming a World Heritage site, have not been met.

“We could be as good as Zanzibar, as good as Lamu for tourism,” said Peter Tolle, a local historian who guides tours in French, English and German. “Locals don’t want to talk about being a World Heritage site anymore and they feel shortchanged. Our houses are shabby, we have the money, but we cannot fix them.”

“We are trapped by their rules but there are no funds,” he continued, referring to UNESCO regulations around the changes that can and cannot be made at and near World Heritage sites.

Lamu Town, Stone Town and Fort Jesus exemplify the critiques that experts working in preservation and tourism level at UNESCO’s World Heritage List — a list of landmarks or natural areas that have been designated by the multilateral organization as having historical, scientific or cultural significance. These places include Machu Picchu, the historic center of Florence and the Taj Mahal.

They contend that being on the list can be a poisoned chalice, of either overtourism or undertourism. On one side, there is, as Mr. Tolle suggested, an expectation that being added to the list will somehow be a game changer for the community, bringing in money not only from UNESCO but also from tourism-focused investments and infrastructure projects. But Mike Robinson, professor of cultural heritage at Nottingham Trent University in England, noted in an interview that, in reality “there is no money and it has to rely on donors.”

In addition, the international agency has been blamed for what the Italian journalist Marco D’Eramo deemed UNESCOcide, when he wrote that being added to the list is a “kiss of death” and that it “all too often cures the disease by killing the patient”; that is, in acknowledging that a site is worth protecting, UNESCO can, itself, drive unsustainable levels of tourism.

Florence, Italy, where the Art for Tomorrow conference is taking place this week, became a World Heritage site in 1982, and it has long suffered from overtourism. It was estimated that in 2019, 15 million tourists — 20 times Florence’s population of 708,000 — visited the city that is home to the Uffizi Galleries and the Duomo di Firenze.

Aptly, the subject of UNESCO sites will be explored at the conference. The annual event was founded by The New York Times, and is now convened by the Democracy & Culture Foundation, with panels moderated by Times journalists.

That conversation will contribute to the debate over the heritage list, around what the benefits of being on it are, if in some places, the tourism the designation brings ruins a locale’s charm, while in other cases, inclusion on the list brings unrealistic hopes for greater change.

The idea for the UNESCO World Heritage list, which now has 1,157 sites, grew out of a project to rescue the monuments of Nubia, which include Abu Simbel, the site of two temples carved into a sandstone cliff in the Nubian Valley in Egypt in the 13th century B.C. In the 1950s, local engineers planned to build a dam along a portion of the Nile River to control flooding and generate electricity.

However, the dam would have flooded the valley and submerged hundreds of ancient monuments, so the Egyptian and Sudanese governments turned to UNESCO for help. The resulting project, during which Abu Simbel was moved, in pieces, up to a higher altitude, helped spark the 1972 Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, which set up the heritage list.

Interestingly, tourism was mentioned only once in the document that arose from that convention, in relation to the threat it could pose to sites.

“But, of course, we didn’t have the scope of international tourism then,” said Professor Robinson, who has done consulting for UNESCO on sustainable tourism, and who recognizes that tourism — in itself — doesn’t always have to be detrimental. “Time has moved on, we need to update that to say tourism is not just a threat, but it’s also a valuable opportunity.”

It is difficult to assess the direct economic impacts of becoming a World Heritage site. For example, Dubrovnik, Croatia, is on the list, but the city’s tourist invasion is very likely also related to the its role as a filming location for “Game of Thrones.”

However, a 2015 report by the United Kingdom National Commission for UNESCO discovered that Scottish UNESCO projects generated an estimated 10.8 million British pounds (or $13.4 million) from 2014 to 2015 through their connection with the heritage list.

That has meant that a number of countries, often in the developing world, want to get their sites on the list. Professor Robinson said that was partly because state parties “see it as a way of boosting tourism” and so “the motivation has shifted from site protection to site valorization.”

There have been critiques that a change in who sits on the World Heritage Committee — a group of representatives from 21 countries who have final say over which sites are added to the list — has led to the list’s being politicized.

“You do get places moving forward for inscription that the advisory bodies have recommended not go forward because the care isn’t adequately in place,” said Susan MacDonald, head of buildings and sites at the Getty Conservation Institute. “When those places go on the list, when they clearly haven’t got the right systems and policies and processes in place, there’s always a problem.”

She added, however, that almost 50 percent of the heritage sites were in Europe and North America, so there was a feeling that the list needed to be more representative.

UNESCO suggests that representatives to the World Heritage Committee be experts in preservation and conservation, but leaves the ultimate selection up to the countries themselves. “So, you started to get this shift from a completely expert body to one that was sort of a mixture,” Ms. MacDonald said. “And when that happens, you get lobbying.”

What often is not well articulated to local communities is that when sites — which include both cultural sites, like the Vietnamese town of Hoi An, and natural sites, like Yellowstone National Park — go on the list, it is the obligation of local and national governments of those countries to take care of everything from maintaining and marketing the site to controlling the number of tourists who visit.

“Once a site is inscribed, it is first the responsibility of the government of the country where the site is located to put in place all measures to protect the site,” said Lazare Eloundou Assomo, the director of the UNESCO World Heritage Center, which maintains the list.

So, while UNESCO does help countries develop sustainable tourism practices and give advice, inclusion on the list doesn’t automatically mean solutions in terms of conservation or community development and investment.

“When you get something inscribed on the World Heritage List, it is not that the UNESCO police suddenly start coming in,” joked Joseph King, senior director at the office of the director general at the International Center for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property, who in the 1980s and ’90s was a consultant for UNESCO. “You’d be surprised at how many people actually think that is the case like, ‘Why isn’t UNESCO stopping this from happening?’”

People like Mr. Tolle, the tour guide in Mombasa, find the whole process complicated and bureaucratic, and often misunderstand what becoming a site will mean for their communities. “They hear about it, and they understand it to be like the goose that laid the golden egg,” said Ms. MacDonald. “That sometimes doesn’t trickle down to them, unless governments have been careful to put in place systems and practices that empower local communities in the management of the place.”

Covid dramatized that point in places like Ethiopia’s lower Omo Valley, a region inscribed to the list in 1980. Before 2020, and the onset of the pandemic and the war in the north of the country, tiny remote villages like Dildi would get around 15 tourists a day, and the villages became dependent on the extra cash. But now, according to local Mursi chief Baradi Birabi, the visitors have all but dried up.

“With the money from tourists we could buy medicine for our people or our cattle,” he said, as one of the villagers tried to sell a clay lip plate to a lone Israeli tourist. “But now we have to sell the cattle, so we do hope tourists will come back.”

That’s a problem UNESCO is trying to work on, including a visitor flow management tool that will be extended to all sites by 2029, Peter DeBrine, who works on UNESCO’s sustainable tourism program, wrote in an email.

“Tourism can bring economic benefits to local communities and raise awareness about the importance of heritage preservation, but it can also have negative impacts on sites, such as overcrowding, societal changes, damage to fragile ecosystems and degradation of cultural monuments,” he added. “This is why UNESCO has strengthened its responses and tools in this area, and that it is committed to the development of sustainable tourism.”



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