What is the World Heritage List?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 19 September 2019
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The World Heritage List is a compilation of natural and cultural sites deemed to be vital parts of human history by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). As of 2009, the list contains 890 separate sites in 148 countries around the world. Being accepted as a World Heritage Site grants certain privileges, such as allocation of World Heritage trust funds for restoration in case of an emergency.

As humanity continued to grow and spread across the globe throughout the 20th century, it became apparent to many that urban development and population growth could lead to the destruction of man important natural and historic areas. In the 1960s, both the United States government and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (ICUN) began to call for international efforts to protect these sites from harm. Developed from these efforts and accepted by UNESCO, the World Heritage List began naming sites in the 1970s.

For a cultural site or natural reserve to become part of the World Heritage List, it must be evaluated by several governing bodies. A country may submit a list of potential sites for World Heritage status, which is then examined by secondary committees. These committees make recommendations to the World Heritage Committee, which is made up of 21 elected members from different countries. Each year the World Heritage Committee votes on potential sites to add or remove them from the world heritage list.


There are ten possible criteria that allow a location to be designated as a member of the World Heritage List. Originally, the list was strictly divided into cultural or natural sites, but since 2005, the World Heritage Committee has also begun approving sites that are a combination of both human history and natural wonder. The 890 sites include historic ruins such as the rock-carved city of Petra in Jordan, indescribably beautiful natural areas such as Australia's Great Barrier Reef, and places with significant cultural and natural value, like the buildings and extraordinary rainforest surroundings of Machu Pichu, Peru.

In addition to naming some of the most important sites of human and earth history, the committee can also designate sites on the world heritage list as being “in danger”. Granting a site this status allows the committee to provide financial assistance from the World Heritage Fund, as well as create a plan to save and restore the site. If a site cannot or does not respond to restoration efforts or the committee determines that alterations to the site have destroyed its cultural value, it can be removed from the list after a certain period of careful monitoring. In 2009, the Elbe Valley in Germany was removed from the World Heritage List after a four-lane traffic bridge was constructed through the area.

The efforts of the World Heritage Committee are considered by many to stand at the forefront of conservation and the promotion of history appreciation. By maintaining the list, UNESCO keeps focus on the importance of Earth's treasures, both natural and manmade. By rotating Committee membership through all participating nations, the World Heritage List also prevents cultural bias and ensures the appreciation of sites that have contributed to humanity on a global level.


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