A World Heritage Site is “a landmark or area with legal protection by an international convention administered by the United Nation Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). World Heritage Sites are designated by UNESCO for having cultural, historical scientific or other form of significance.”
These sites are found around the world, and to be considered, they must be nominated by a country and go through a series of selection processes.
As of last year, there were 1,121 sites in the world — 869 were cultural, 213 natural and 39 a combination of the two categories. Across the world they are found in 167 countries, the largest number in India and China (55 each).
The United States has 24. (I have had the privilege of visiting 11 sites in the U.S). Examples of sites in the U.S. are Yellowstone National Park, Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site (located in Illinois, but near St. Louis) and the Great Smoky Mountains State Park.
However, there are none in Ohio — but is there some chance that that might change?
Actually, that is a real possibility, but over 2,000 sites worldwide are being considered. Three nominations in Ohio are among 200 sites on the “U.S. Tentative List” from which nominees will be chosen: the Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks, which includes five parks here in Ohio including Fort Ancient) which will be considered first; then Serpent Mound; and finally, Dayton Aviation Sites.
Being listed as a World Heritage Site does not assure the site of continued designation; it could be delisted!
Only two sites have experienced this – the Arabian Oryx Sanctuary was delisted in 2007 when the Omani government decided to reduce the protected area’s size by 90 percent. The other case was the Dresden Elbe Valley in Germany when it was decided to erect a bridge and the UNICEF Committee decided it would significantly alter the valley’s landscape.
Why are so many countries interested in having sites within their boundaries designated as World Heritage Sites? “A Large lobbying industry has grown around the awards because World Heritage listing can significantly increase tourism returns.”
Even though this is clearly true, there is another side – sites can be subject to too much tourism and subsequently possible degradation. Because of the cost to a country for applying for such designation, and the cost of infrastructure to maintain it, poor countries have a significant disadvantage in the quest for such recognition.
The U.S. relationship to UNESCO was significantly altered when President Trump decided in 2019 to withdraw from the international agency. Thus, the U.S. is no longer a voting member — but for changes well-known, there is good reason to believe that that this will soon be reversed.
Neil Snarr is Professor Emeritus at Wilmington College.