According to the official website of UNESCO, being part of the World Heritage list is a “prestige” whose main objective is to encourage governments and citizens to preserve these places. In an era of accelerated development, the fight for this title serves as the protection of ancient cities, a challenge common to many urban centers around the world. However, part of the purpose of the candidacy for “World Heritage” also involves the development of the associated tourist industry, as this is a status that brings several economic and social benefits to the regions.
Since August 2021, China has been the second country with the highest number of world heritage sites (see chart), with a total of 56, with the “Historical Center of Macau” (entered the list in 2005) being one of them, since 2005 In 2018 alone, each of these locations brought China a direct profit of RMB 14.375 billion. The importance that the country offers to its heritage can still be recognized through the “Day of the Cultural and Natural Heritage of China”, celebrated on the second Saturday of June.
Difficult application process and no guaranteed position
Sites included on the World Heritage List must be of outstanding value and meet at least one of the ten criteria on the list. In the case of the Historic Center of Macau, four are fulfilled. After being nominated by a government entity, the site is reviewed and evaluated by the World Heritage Committee before being put to a vote. The application process is complex and requires at least 18 months.
Gulangyu Island in Fujian, for example, started its application process in 2008, but was only included on the list in 2017. Entry on the list also does not mean a guaranteed position. In July 2021, the Maritime Mercantile City of Liverpool was the third site in the world to be removed from the World Heritage List, due to the “development of the Mercantile City having resulted in irreversible losses to the value attributes of the site”. In 2004, when Liverpool was named a World Heritage Site, its biggest shopping center and the multimillion-dollar Goodison Park stadium had not yet been built. A decade later, these two constructions were the main cause of its overdevelopment.
Cultural highlight is economic highlight
Although Chinese heritages are not at risk of being excluded, there are several places where “heritage is enhanced but not protected”, such as the ancient city of Ping Yao in Shanxi and the ancient city of Lijiang in Yunnan, which have been transformed into tourist and commercial places, without their local and historical characteristics. This is a common phenomenon in many parts of the world, where world heritage conservation projects are used as opportunities for local economic growth.
The above examples reflect the difficulty of several countries in finding a balance between cultural heritage protection and continued economic development. The growing number of visitors associated with the title of World Heritage represents not only greater financial pressure on the preservation of these monuments, but also
it also impacts the lives of local residents. Therefore, it is an area of important consideration for local authorities.
Entry to the UNESCO list should not be based on local economic development – this purpose goes against the original aim of the list to “safeguard the world heritage of all mankind”. It is therefore expected that these governments take advantage of all the scientific, technical, human and material resources they have, and that they establish administrative and regulatory measures. At the same time, the population must be made aware of the value of protecting these natural and cultural heritages, so that they can be experienced by future generations.
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