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Will US withdrawal from UNESCO affect heritage sites?

Tourists visit Angkor Wat, one of 1,073 wold heritage sites around the globe.
Tourists visit Angkor Wat, one of 1,073 wold heritage sites around the globe. Hong Menea

Will US withdrawal from UNESCO affect heritage sites?

by Jessica Colley Clarke

Last fall the Trump administration announced it would withdraw from UNESCO, the cultural organization of the United Nations that is known to travelers for its list of World Heritage sites.

The withdrawal is scheduled to go into effect at the end of 2018. There are 23 World Heritage sites in the United States, including Grand Canyon National Park, Independence Hall, Yellowstone National Park and the Statue of Liberty.

If the United States withdraws from UNESCO, it would remain a state party, having signed and ratified the World Heritage Convention. “There is one consequence only,” said George Papagiannis, the chief of media services at UNESCO headquarters in Paris, about the U.S. withdrawal. “The U.S. cannot be elected to the World Heritage Committee,” a managing committee made up of elected representatives from 21 countries. The committee is in charge of allocating financial assistance and determining what sites are included on, or removed from, the World Heritage List.

The World Heritage program, which began in 1972, includes a list of 1,073 sites “that are of outstanding universal value to humanity,” and should therefore “be protected for future generations to appreciate and enjoy,” according to UNESCO’s website. But in 2011 the United States stopped funding UNESCO, standing with Israel when Palestine was admitted to the organization (legislation from the 1990s requires a cutoff of American funding to U.N. agencies that accept Palestine as a full member).

Yet despite cuts in funding — U.S. contributions were 22 percent of UNESCO’s yearly budget or about $70 million before the 2011 funding cutoff — travelers would not experience a direct effect when visiting World Heritage sites, Papagiannis said in a telephone interview.

“Maintenance and preservation of the sites is the responsibility of the host country,” Papagiannis said. “But we do hold countries accountable to maintaining their sites in accordance with the World Heritage Convention.” Sites are monitored with conservation reports that all countries are required to file every six years.

While there would be no immediate consequences for World Heritage sites, the withdrawal by the United States may affect UNESCO in other ways. According to Stefan Simon, the director of Global Cultural Heritage Initiatives at Yale University, “With the U.S. once responsible for approximately 22 percent of UNESCO’s budget, of course the announced withdrawal is detrimental, and would painfully reduce UNESCO’s ability to fulfill its important missions, such as advancing and promoting literacy, gender equality, freedom of expression and scientific collaboration.”

Despite no longer being a paying member, the United States would be able to continue to submit sites for World Heritage List consideration. The World Heritage Committee will next meet in Bahrain from June 24 to July 4. “The leadership of the U.S. is crucial in this debate,” Simon said. “Its voice will be thoroughly missed at the table.”

There are several benefits for sites that are included on the World Heritage List. UNESCO provides leadership on maintaining the health of the sites, including a focus on sustainable tourism. “An important component of what we do is providing guidance for managing tourism numbers in a sustainable way,” Papagiannis said.

Studies also suggest that World Heritage status has a direct effect on the local economy. In Texas where the San Antonio Missions (Spanish Colonial missions dating to 1690) were designated a World Heritage Site in 2015, an economic analysis conducted by Harbinger Consulting Group estimated that over 10 years, from 2015 to 2025, the designation will generate 500 to 1,000 new jobs and up to $2 million in local hotel tax revenue.

Increases in tourism can also bring challenges to a site. “Tourism and development can cause both positive and negative consequences,” Simon said. “Many of the more than 1,000 World Heritage sites are struggling with keeping a balance between the economic benefits created by soaring tourism and development, and connected threats to the cultural significance which originally put them on the list.”

According to Papagiannis, UNESCO’s objective is to demonstrate the shared heritage of people around the globe with its World Heritage List. “Stand at the foot of the Acropolis and then stand on the steps of Independence Hall and you can sense the connection,” Papagiannis said. “Both encourage visitors to reflect on the beginning of the ideas of democracy.”

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