In the four decades since UNESCO launched its World Heritage programme to help preserve cultural and natural treasures, over 900 sites have earned the distinction.
But some conservation experts say that the uncontrolled tourism development that follows World Heritage designation may do more harm than good for the very sites the programme was meant to protect.
In developing countries like Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, sites are left largely to their own devices when it comes to managing the burgeoning number of visitors. Emphasis is placed on increasing tourism to alleviate local poverty.
The protected status of the once royal capital of Laos, Luang Prabang, the ancient temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Vietnam’s stunning Halong Bay attracts millions of tourists from across the globe, bringing jobs and cash to the poor countries.
But with uncontrolled development and growing pollution, is heritage status also overwhelming the very sites it is designed to protect?
In Cambodia’s Angkor Archaeological Park, for instance, the rapid rise of popularity has led to a host of problems. The sprawl of hotels is sapping the region’s local aquifer, causing Angkor’s monuments to sink into the ground.
Similarly, in Vietnam’s Halong Bay, which two million tourists visit each year, complaints abound of floating garbage being tossed from the tourist boats that ply the waters. And traditions in the heritage city of Luang Prabang in Laos face being ruined by crowds.
Issues such as unchecked development and pollution have earned 31 sites a place on UNESCO’s World Heritage in Danger list and many sites lack an adequate tourism management plan – even though having one is a condition of inscription.
Still, World Heritage status affords a certain degree of protection without which many sites would be in much worse shape. How can these ancient places balance economic needs with conservation to save them from being overrun?