The idea of creating an international movement for protecting heritage emerged after World War I. The 1972 Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage developed from the merging of two separate movements: the first focusing on the preservation of cultural sites, and the other dealing with the conservation of nature. But what comes with the World Heritage tag?
Research has shown that designation can bring a host of social and economic benefits to an area. In places where the status has been well managed, these have included economic regeneration, conservation, education, funding and enhanced civic pride. Tourism rarely features in the reasons why a site has received the status, but is often one of the motivations for an application – particularly in developing nations in search of foreign support.
Angkor in Cambodia is a good example. It is one of the most treasured archaeological areas in the region, containing several temples that date back to medieval times that survived the Khmer Rouge. Achieving UNESCO status unlocked international conservation funding that significantly improved the condition of these relics, helping to guarantee their future as a tourist attraction.
The status can also be a way of meeting resident cultural needs at the same time as servicing large tourist markets. The 19th-century dwellings at Aapravasi Ghat, Mauritius fall into this category for instance. They housed indentured labourers from India in an early example of British efforts to develop a substitute for slaves. Achieving UNESCO status in 2006 was seen as a means of unlocking the funds required to develop a site that is potentially of significance to the two-thirds of Mauritians who are descended from Indians, as well as offering a new dimension to the traditional beach visitor holiday.
Some UNESCO sites meanwhile see value in terms of non-economic benefits such as historic importance, symbolic meaning, aesthetic and moral worth, or conserving public goods. A good example would be Ogimachi in Japan, the site of tall thatched houses unlike any others in the country.
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