“UNESCO World Heritage site” is one of the best-known labels in the world—a tourist magnet—except in the United States. Many Americans know nothing of the worldwide program they helped found 40 years ago, nor that the U.S. has 21 World Heritage sites itself. (Update: See post on the Dec. 3, 2012 Congressional briefing about World Heritage at NatGeo NewsWatch.)
Working with the U.S. Park Service, which administers the domestic program, the UNESCO World Heritage Center now touts a new “passport” booklet intended to help Americans get to know their own internationally recognized gems, ranging from Yosemite and Yellowstone to Taos Publo and Independence Hall.
Some U.S. sites have not promoted their World Heritage inscription, even though the designation is a powerful attractor for foreign visitors. In some cases that’s because of the widespread domestic misunderstanding of UNESCO’s role, a fear that UNESCO (it stands for United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) is somehow a threat to U.S. sovereignty. In fact, UNESCO is rather toothless. It simply monitors the World Heritage List, advising the World Heritage Committee—a non-U.N. body—on proposed additions, perceived threats, and (very rarely) removal from the List. UNESCO’s advisory role, however, is extremely valuable in helping promote good care of these places, in the words of the Convention, “of outstanding universal value.”
Unfortunately, U.S. funding for the World Heritage program has been suspended for an utterly unrelated reason: Middle East politics, namely the 2011 admission of Palestine to UNESCO. One of those ironic unintended consequences, given that World Heritage sites attract foreign tourists, generating American jobs.
And the first country to sign the World Heritage Convention, back in 1972? The United States of America.