What is a World Heritage site?

By: Jennifer Horton
Abu Simbel Temple
Famous Landmarks Image Gallery After UNESCO launched a campaign to save the Abu Simbel temples in Egypt from damage associated with construction of a dam, the massive relics were transported to safety. See more pictures of famous landmarks.
Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

When you hear the word heritage, you might think about faded photos of long-forgotten relatives crumbling in the attic or the dusty comic book collection that you inherited from your dad. But beyond individual heritage, there exists a global heritage that belongs to everyone. At least that's the idea behind the United Nations' Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage. That's a long title for an international treaty that attempts to identify and protect some of the world's greatest cultural and natural sites.

The World Heritage Committee, a group of 21 representatives from countries who have agreed to abide by the convention, decides which sites of "outstanding universal value" qualify for World Heritage status. UNESCO, or the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, adopted the World Heritage designation in 1972 after it was uncertain if some of the world's landmarks would survive into the future.


The catalyst came when the ancient Abu Simbel Egyptian temples were threatened by a proposed dam that would flood the valley in which they rested. UNESCO launched a successful campaign to save the temples and had them transferred to dry ground. The effort, which raised $80 million with the help of about 50 different countries, illustrated that interest in preserving significant landmarks defies boundaries.

Energized by success, UNESCO drafted a proposal to protect more of the world's cultural heritage. Soon after, the president of the United States called a conference that encouraged creating a trust to safeguard natural and scenic areas. The International Union for Conservation of Nature, or the IUCN, had a similar idea. The separate proposals were merged into one all-encompassing document in 1962. The resulting World Heritage Convention, the short title of that international treaty we mentioned earlier, stressed the importance of both culture and the environment, and declared it a global responsibility to protect areas that were outstanding examples of either one.

As of October 2017, 1,073 properties from 167 different countries were listed as World Heritage sites [source: UNESCO]. Many of them you have probably heard of, such as the Galapagos Islands or the Taj Mahal. Others are not so well known: Jiuzhaigou Valley? Choirokoitia? On the next page, you'll find out how places like these came to be World Heritage sites, and what they might gain from their elite status.


Selecting UNESCO World Heritage Sites

sydney opera house
The Sydney Opera House is recognized as a World Heritage site for its excellence in design.
Doug Menuez/Getty Images

Although a country technically retains official ownership of World Heritage sites within its borders, UNESCO states that the sites belong to everybody. Using that definition, you and I hold stock in 832 cultural sites, 206 natural sites and 35 mixed properties [source: UNESCO], as of October 2017. We are partial owners of the Great Wall, Venice and Vatican City. Feeling giddy yet? You can also lay claim to Independence Hall, the Grand Canyon and the Great Barrier Reef. Pretty cool.

A site must meet at least one of these ten selection criteria to make the World Heritage List. The first six criteria relate to cultural sites, while the remainder relate to natural ones. A summary of these criteria is listed below, followed by an example of a site that qualifies in that category.


  1. Represents an architectural masterpiece, such as the Sydney Opera House, which illustrates a feat of engineering and modern design with its shell structure.
  2. Displays an important exchange of human values, like the Speyer Cathedral, which dates back to the Holy Roman Empire and served as the burial place of German emperors.
  3. Bears unique or exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or civilization. An example is the Agra Fort in India, a 16th century monument that houses a number of palaces and mosques.
  4. Exemplifies a type of building that illustrates a significant stage in human history. The Megalithic Temples of Malta, a group of seven giant temples on the islands of Malta and Gozo that show the importance of temple-building, qualified for this criteria.
  5. A traditional human settlement that is an outstanding representation of a culture, especially one that has survived despite environmental pressure. The Curonian Spit, a long sand peninsula in the Baltic Sea, was made a World Heritage site for people's efforts to stop its erosion since prehistoric times.
  6. Associated with events or living traditions of outstanding universal significance, such as the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, the only building standing after the atomic bomb exploded over the city in 1945.
  7. Contains fantastic natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty, such as the majestic Kilimanjaro National Park, which is home to myriad endangered species.
  8. Ilustrates major stages of earth's history, such as the Messel Pit Fossil Site in Germany, which contains well-preserved fossils from the Eocene period that are more than 30 million years old.
  9. Captures significant ongoing ecological and biological processes in the development of communities of plants and animals. Shirakami-Sanchi, the last remaining stand of Siebold's beech trees in northern Japan where 87 species of birds live, meets this criteria.
  10. ­Contains important natural habitats for conserving biological diversity, such as the Okapi Wildlife Reserve, which is home to some of the last remaining okapi -- a relative of the giraffe -- among other animals.

[source: UNESCO]

Along with the above criteria, management, protection and integrity of nominated sites also factor into the decision. So who decides what gets on the list and what doesn't? Find out who's behind the decision-making process on the next page.


World Heritage Organization

Arabian oryx
Evidently, Oman didn't protect its natural heritage enough. The country's Arabian Oryx Sanctuary was removed from the World Heritage List after endangered oryx started declining.
Joseph Van Os/Getty Images

It turns out just being an outstanding example of universal value isn't enough to gain World Heritage status. First of all, only those countries that have agreed to protect their natural and cultural heritage by signing the World Heritage Convention can nominate sites. As of Jan. 31, 2017, there were 193 member countries, or states parties [source: UNESCO].Several perks come with signing the convention. Besides being able to submit sites for the World Heritage List, a state party can receive money from the World Heritage Fund to assist it in identifying, preserving and promoting sites. The fund holds approximately $4 million at any given time [source: UNESCO Information Kit]. In addition to financial assistance, having a UNESCO World Heritage site usually generates tourism dollars.

The states parties, collectively known as the general assembly, meet once every two years to elect members to the World Heritage Committee -- the body responsible for selecting sites, as you might remember. The committee tries to ensure the continuous preservation of sites by evaluating site reviews every six years, and it also allocates financial assistance to countries that need it.


Once a country has submitted a comprehensive nomination file with all of the necessary paperwork, several specialized organizations assist the committee by reviewing the files. Two nongovernmental groups, the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) and the World Conservation Union (IUCN), respectively judge cultural and natural nominees.

As if that's not enough acronyms, the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM) offers the committee its expertise on how to conserve the selected sites.

Although states parties are the official submitters of sites for possible inclusion on the World Heritage List, individual people can suggest one by contacting their country's representative. Who knows, maybe you'll be responsible for the next World Heritage site.


Lots More Information

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More Great Links

  • UNESCO World Heritage Center. "World Heritage." 2008. (April 24, 2008)http://whc.unesco.org/
  • UNESCO World Heritage Center. "World Heritage Information Kit." March 2005. (April 24, 2008)http://whc.unesco.org/documents/publi_infokit_en.pdf