In 1973, when the U.S. became the first country to sign the World Heritage Convention, the idea was for global recognition to encourage protection of the world's great natural and cultural sites. UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) would administer the program, and nations could apply to have a site inscribed on a World Heritage List, if the site was protected and of "outstanding universal value." Tourism traffic wasn't even part of the equation.
It is now. If you look at the destination as a whole—the site plus its neighboring region—tourism management can protect it, or degrade it, often more than any other factor.
World Heritage has been popular. It now totals 830 sites. To see how some of these places are doing, National Geographic Traveler and our National Geographic Center for Sustainable Destinations, with George Washington University, conducted our third Destination Scorecard survey. A panel of 419 experts in sustainable tourism and destination stewardship rated 94 World Heritage destinations.
A third of these places appeared in our first Scorecard, conducted late in 2003 and published in 2004. Most of their scores have moved only slightly, but a few showed dramatic changes. The Galápagos and the Belizean reef have plunged; St. Petersburg and Guanajuato have surged. In many places, tourist fees help maintain historic sites. But in others, like Angkor, tourism is spiralling out of control. And in the Galápagos, a tradition of deft, sensitive tourism that helped protect the islands for years is now in danger.
Although the U.S. was the first country to ratify the World Heritage Convention, the number of World Heritage sites in this country is low. Nominations are open for U.S. World Heritage sites until April 1, 2007. Learn more.
The scores that follow, listed by rank and based on a 1-to-100 scale, reflect the experts' opinions, with representative remarks. To ensure integrity, panelists commented anonymously. No destination rated 90 or more, nor did any fall below 20. All are still worth visiting. Thoughtfully.
Guide to the Scores:
0-25: Catastrophic: all criteria very negative, outlook grim.
26-45: In serious trouble.
46-65: In moderate trouble: all criteria medium-negative or a mix of negatives and positives.
66-85: Minor difficulties.
86-95: Authentic, unspoiled, and likely to remain so.