The impact of a UNESCO designation on travel sites

The New York Times has an interesting piece out this weekend about UNESCO World Heritage Sites and the impact they have on the destinations in which they are sited. To be certain, the strain of having so many tourists in some of these areas is huge, pushing the limits of what the local infrastructure can support in many cases. I’ve seen that recently in visiting the backwaters of Kerala, for example, where the process of pushing tourists through has significantly changed the local environment significantly. Ditto for a number of the sites we visited in Sri Lanka (reports coming soon!).

There’s also the issue of certain newer designations, the so-called "intangibles," and some rather heated debate about whether those really should be counted or even what they really are. Some of the traditions enshrined under the act – like Indonesian puppet theatre – are reasonably easy to identify. Others are a bit harder. The French have designated their "gastronomic meal" as one such tradition.

The French gastronomic meal, enshrined in 2010, is one example. It is meant to preserve the lavish family occasion that marks major life events: births, communions, weddings, birthdays, exam results, deaths. It recognizes “that the French community puts a gastronomic meal at the center of its celebration of life,” said Ms. Duvelle, herself French.

Unesco was not pleased that three-star French chefs used the designation to try to promote themselves, culminating in a grotesque celebration at Versailles last April where some 60 celebrity chefs largely prepared meals elsewhere that were trucked in and warmed up on portable workstations for celebrity guests and the news media.

Now there is talk, at least, of taking the recognition away because the state has not done much to safeguard the tradition except to advertise it abroad under the slogan, “So French, So Good!”

I’ve visited over 50 of the designated sites so far in my life, and nearly every one of the has been an incredible experience. I haven’t explored the intangible options as much, but I suppose they’ll be part of my adventures at some point. That said, having now looked at the list, there’s a lot of stuff on there that doesn’t seem to really be "special" in a way that needs or deserves protection. Then again, if I could get money out of the UN to help protect the heritage of the Tango, I would do it, too.

WHS Visits Badge

In the meantime, I’ll keep tracking my visits using that section of the Travel Tools site. Lots of fun to help plan trips and identify potential sites to visit, as well as to keep track of some of the places I’ve visited. And being able to have a bit of competition on how many I’ve visited isn’t so bad either.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


  1. I have made 43 sites on the list (Yay!). I was in Old Quebec City twice – once in the early 80’s and again in the early 00’s. The difference was like night & day. In the 80’s, we were made to feel unwelcome. We spoke a few rudimentary words of french, but no one would speak to us when we were lost. The national park service rangers would not direct us to the entrance of the fort.

    In the ’00’s, everyone spoke English. Menu’s were written in English & French. There were sidewalk cafes and tour buses and cruise ships docked in the harbor. Our first trip really did not make us want to go back to visit. Our second trip was much more pleasant and I definitely would go back.

    However, the difference that 20 years and the active courting of American tourist dollars was quite evident to us.

    If you contrast Niagara Falls to Gulfoss, Iceland you can see what tourism will do. Look at the hotels, casinos and attractions next to the falls that have sprung up in the last 20 – 25 years. At Gulfoss (5 years ago), I was surprised that there only fence was a rope. There was a lone ranger station with a small exhibit and a building for the restrooms. Neither of these is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

    In Quebec, I think tourism has made it better, in Niagra Falls, tourism has made it worse. I would hope that UNESCO would somehow help places preserve the sites as best as possible.

  2. The UNESCO list a great resource in my trip planning, often directing me to places that guide books give short shrift to, such as Sinharaja Forest Reserve in Sri Lanka which is overshadowed by elephant-laden parks to the south. I was the only visitor that day and had a blast with salt-covered feet to fight off the leeches.

    1. We didn’t get to Sinharaja, RTC, but we did do a few of the other sites in Sri Lanka. Sure, they were the more touristed ones, but we still had a great time.

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