Today I would like to discuss the effect that the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has had on world travel. UNESCO was established in 1972 and began designating (inscribing) World Heritage Sites in 1979. Since that time, hundreds of world treasures have been added to the list (830 as of today). Many of these places are the classic tourist destinations of the world, such as, Angkor Wat, the Great Wall of China, the Pyramids of Giza, etc. Others are not so well known, and some could hardly be called tourist destinations at all.
The net effect on travel, however, has been significant. Countries boast and promote sites on the list to attract more visitors and to increase tourism revenue. One of the negative effects, briefly discussed earlier in one of my travel chronicles, has been to create more crowds and, most importantly, more deterioration, especially in the case of ancient sites which are more sensitive to traffic. We saw this dramatized in our recent trip to Chichen Itza, where we found greater restrictions on the visitor (roped off areas) and a change in the policy concerning El Castillo, the giant pyramid on the site (until about 7 months ago people were allowed to climb the stairway, but not anymore). We were a bit disappointed but understand and agree with the new policy, which is aimed at long term preservation of this important cultural site.
My feeling is that this type of reaction to increasing tourism will continue to become more commonplace. The opportunities to get up-close-and-personal with many of the world’ greatest travel treasures is rapidly diminishing. Another example is the policy in Egypt of allowing access to the inside of only one of the pyramids at any one time, giving the remaining two a chance to recover for a period of time.
Will we eventually lose the ability to access major travel icons at all? Will they be moved into museums, as Athens has done with much of the fragile material of the Acropolis, or will the sites themselves become museums with a strict hands-off policy, as has been done with the Terracotta Warriors, in China? It certainly is unfortunate that these trends seem to be more and more common, but the ultimate responsibility for these trends, I feel, rest with the uneducated, inconsiderate, and selfish few who disregard warnings and requests and just do what they want. Think about the rampant disrespect which is evident at Ayers Rock (Uluru) in Australia. Since the site is sacred to the Australian aborigines, visitors are requested not to walk on or climb the rock, but a large number of visitors ignore the request and climb it anyway. Our guide at Tulum had to speak to several people who climbed over the ropes despite postings to the contrary. We were even told that the real reason for the closing off of the stairway at Chichen Itza was because of graffiti which was becoming more and more of a problem at the summit of the pyramid.
What does all this have to do with UNESCO? Well, the reason for the body which reviews and inscibes new sites annually was to create a global agency which will help countries to PRESERVE treasures which are considered important for the whole world and for generations to come. There have been numerous success stories over the years with which the organization has assisted and in which it has intervened to prevent the destruction and/or deterioration of an area. Thus, I feel that the few negative effects, such as increased crowds and more limited access, pale next to the obvious benefits of preserving a legacy of world history and culture for generations to come.
Hopefully, we will all understand how important these efforts are, and will do everything in our power to honor and respect these sensitive areas and help the authorities to police them. Most importantly, we must all lead by example!