Will U.S. Withdrawal from Unesco Affect Heritage Sites?

Grand Prismatic, the largest hot spring in Yellowstone National Park, a Unesco World Heritage site.

Last fall the Trump administration announced that 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.

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 United Nations agencies that accept Palestine as a full member).

Yet despite cuts in funding — United States contributions were 22 percent of Unesco’s yearly budget or about $70 million before the 2011 funding cutoff — travelers would not experience a direct impact when visiting World Heritage sites, according to George Papagiannis, the chief of media services at Unesco headquarters in Paris.

“Maintenance and preservation of the sites is the responsibility of the host country,” Mr. Papagiannis said in a telephone interview. “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 Dr. 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.”

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,” Mr. Papagiannis said about the United States 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.

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, 2018. “The leadership of the U.S. is crucial in this debate,” said Dr. Simon. “Its voice will be thoroughly missed at the table.”

The United States played an integral role in the creation of the World Heritage program. Russell Train, the former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency who is often described as one of the primary architects of World Heritage, talked about the importance of the concept in a 2002 speech at the 30th Anniversary of the World Heritage Convention in Venice, Italy. “The World Heritage Convention itself represents a partnership among 175 nations,” he said in his speech. “I see the program as an opportunity to convey the idea of a common heritage among nations and peoples everywhere. I see it as a compelling idea that can help unite people rather than divide them.”

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,” Mr. Papagiannis said.

Studies also suggest that World Heritage status has a direct impact 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 between 500 and 1,000 new jobs plus 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,” said Dr. Simon. “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 toMr. 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,” Mr. Papagiannis said. “Both encourage visitors to reflect on the beginning of the ideas of democracy.” Sites are chosen for “how they speak powerfully to people across cultures,” he said.

Beyond the World Heritage List, Unesco also operates a list called World Heritage in Danger. This list of 54 sites, including the Everglades National Park in Florida, raises a red flag for places that are currently facing threats, whether from natural causes like an earthquake or from political conflict.

Unesco can also help travelers discover cultural traditions through its Intangible Cultural Heritage program. Travelers may find inspiration when reading about a wide range of customs that include dance, music, crafts, storytelling, festivals and culinary traditions. Reading about the craftsmanship of handmade paper in Japan, beer culture in Belgium or puppetry in Slovakia may plant a seed for a future trip.

In addition to the World Heritage program, Unesco works on a range of issues including journalistic freedom and access to information, education, equality for women, climate change, clean water and promoting women in science. “Unesco focuses, in particular, on two global priorities: Africa and gender equality,” Dr. Simon said. “With this, I think it is obvious that Unesco’s mission is more than just valuable, it is essential.”

The L’Oréal-Unesco for Women in Science Initiative offers awards to international women researchers and scientists. In 2018, five Award Laureates will each receive an award of 100,000 euros.

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