The Great Barrier Reef. Tequila. The Architectural Works of Le Corbusier. The City of Venice. Uruguay’s Fray Bentos Meat Packing Plant. The Great Pyramid of Giza. The Wieliczka Salt Mines. The Grand Canyon.
What could all these possibly have in common beyond strongly varying levels of vacation destination potential? UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) World Heritage Site status! UNESCO “seeks to encourage the identification, protection, and preservation of cultural and natural heritage around the world considered to be of outstanding value to humanity,” and their World Heritage Sites are the cornerstone of that effort, spanning almost every kind of amazing natural or cultural wonder one could have on their bucket list.
How Does a Site Gain World Heritage Status?
Earning the right to display the conspicuous World Heritage Site plaque and join the elite club of 1,052 (current) sites is no walk in the national park. UNESCO’s criteria states that sites “must be of outstanding universal value and meet at least one out of ten selection criteria.” These include hurdles in the cultural and natural realms like: “represent a masterpiece of human creative genius”; “bear a unique…testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization”; “contain superlative natural phenomena”; and “represent major stages of earth’s history.”
Nations place sites in their borders which they believe meet these qualifications on their “Tentative List.” UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee meets annually to review these Tentative Lists and grant World Heritage Site status to a select additional few (21 were added to the list in July 2016). Even Disneyworld may be waiting a while by these standards.
Where Can I Find World Heritage Sites?
Almost anywhere. The 1,052 current World Heritage Sites, constituting 814 Cultural sites, 203 Natural sites, and 35 mixed Cultural/National sites, are spread across 165 nations. Though a large number are extremely famous internationally, many of the more obscure ones may literally be stumbled upon, especially when backpacking in Europe. The top ten nations with the most sites are, in descending order: Italy (51), China (50), Spain (45), France (42), Germany (41), India (35), Mexico (34), The United Kingdom (30), Russia (26), and the United States (23). One can find a complete list and mapping of World Heritage Sites on UNESCO’s website.
With so many World Heritage Sites, some avid travelers have probably already been to quite a few — but there are still plenty more to explore, and new sites are added regularly. When planning future vacations, consulting your destination country’s list of sites could serve as a gold-star, UNESCO-approved backbone to any itinerary. At the very least, these sites provide a fascinating portal into the history, culture, and environment of any given corner of the world.