Endangered World Heritage Sites

World Heritage Sites are, by definition, fantastic places to visit. But is this true of all of them?

Sure, the honored temples, pagodas, natural landscapes, and medieval towns all have something special to offer; otherwise they wouldn’t be on the list. But what about the negative aspects, the things never mentioned by UNESCO?

The fine folks at National Geographic Traveler have come up with their own rating system to honor the very best and very worst World Heritage Sites on this planet based upon “sustainable tourism.”

National Geographic actively hosts the Center for Sustainable Destinations which researches the impact of tourism upon popular tourist sites. For example, toward the bottom of the most recent scorecard of 94 World Heritage Sites researched by the group is the Potala Palace in Tibet. The Palace scored only 46 out of 100 possible points due to the impact of mass tourism, Chinese attempts to diffuse the Tibetan culture, and “souvenir shops replacing the religious articles market.” Dead last is Kathmandu Valley in Nepal where political strife, concrete buildings, and pollution is quickly destroying the ancient heritage of this fantastic area.

It is truly sad reading through the bottom of the list and the litany of problems facing so many of the world’s great destinations. The temples of Angkor, Cambodia, for example, are threatened by a rash of new tourist hotels which consume so much water that the water table has lowered and is weakening the foundations of the temple.

The good news is that a number of destinations are weathering the tourist onslaught with strength and vigor. Number one on the list with 87 points is the west fjords of Norway, followed up by Spain’s Alhambra. Both treasures are well protected and well managed by the local communities in which they lie. They currently face little threat and healthy longevity–at least for the time being.

Be sure to pop on over to National Geographic Traveler and check out the list. This is one of the better World Heritage Site summations I’ve seen in a long time, and one which will motivate, inspire, and sadly, even depress.

If you can get a hold of the print edition (November/December 2006) take a moment to mull over the depressing cover photo of tourists in loud clothing and sun hats scaling the ancient stairs of Angkor. One glance and you’ll understand why it has fared so poorly in the National Geographic Traveler report.