World Heritage Status: Added protection, or unintended destruction?

By Rebecca McLeod 18/05/2010

Sometimes I curse being an environmental scientist. Particularly when I’m traveling overseas. While my fellow travelers gaze in awe at the natural wonders around them, I can’t help but see signs of pollution and degradation. I have just returned from a stint in Vietnam where I visited a World Heritage Area. It really got me thinking…

When UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) awards World Heritage Status to a natural environment, tourist numbers soar. Visitors turn up expecting to find unparalleled beauty, and I suspect a pristine, possibly wilderness-type experience. Should these tourists come to Tongariro or Fiordland National Parks — the ’jewels in the crown’ of New Zealand tourism — they are likely to find exactly that. But is that the case at World Heritage sites in other parts of the world? At what point does increased tourism actually have detrimental effects on the very environments that UNESCO intends to protect?

Ha Long Bay in northern Vietnam is marketed as ’the most beautiful place in the world’. I figured this was a place I just had to see. What I found was a landscape very much reminiscent of southern Fiordland. But… a Fiordland that you might expect to find just before the world ends. Thousands of bush-clad islands with toxic plastic-laden waters lapping at the shores. Steep cliffs extending upwards into the haze created by nearby coal-fired powerstations. Sea eagles swooping down to inspect discarded nappies and plastic flotsam. And everywhere, everywhere (!) an endless procession of tourist boats spewing out raw sewerage and diesel fumes.

Tourist boats jostle to unload passengers at Ha Long Bay, Vietnam
Tourist boats jostle to unload passengers at Ha Long Bay, Vietnam. Photo: Rebecca McLeod

I don’t mean to sound like a doomsdayer, but I was incredibly upset by my experience in Ha Long Bay. By all accounts this area was not so heavily polluted even ten years ago. But rapid development throughout Vietnam and skyrocketing tourism seem to be taking their toll.

The objective of World Heritage Status is to encourage conservation of the area, by empowering local communities to improve management practices, and where needed to provide assistance should the area become at risk of degradation. The dramatic increase in tourism that often accompanies the addition of a site to the World Heritage List could perhaps be regarded as an unintentional consequence of enlistment. But the lobbying that goes on behind the scenes shows that national governments are all to aware of the financial benefits that come with having sites in their country added to the list. The UNESCO process is transparent, and reports available on the website document current concerns about the negative impacts of tourism in Ha Long Bay. In the latest document (2009), the UNESCO council requested that tourist numbers to Ha Long Bay be regulated and the tourism-associated environmental impacts monitored. Unfortunately I saw no evidence of visitor restrictions — our boat left the dock with at least 20 other boats for company, and there were always at least ten boats in sight.

Never wanting for company - and this was the quiet season! Photo: Rebecca McLeod
Never wanting for company - and this was the quiet season! Photo: Rebecca McLeod

It could be argued that such negative implications of World Heritage status are only likely to occur in developing nations where environmental practices are largely unregulated. However, we don’t have to look far to find an example of a World Heritage Area in a developed country that is suffering degradation due to its popularity with tourists.

Fraser Island, in Queensland, Australia has been on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 1992, and since that time tourism has increased rapidly to an estimated half a million visitors a year. The majority of these tourists explore the sandy island by driving four wheel drive vehicles along the beaches. At night, the vehicles are driven up into the sand dunes, where camps are set up. Although there are established camping sites complete with toilet facilities, the quest for a true wilderness experience sees many visitors camping in non-designated areas. Perhaps this wouldn’t be a problem if we were only talking a small number of tourists. But unfortunately half a million visitors a year driving their vehicles into the dunes is taking its toll. The dunes are suffering from destruction, areas are becoming nutrient-enriched, and the roar of 4WDs is detracting from the wilderness experience.

In principle I agree with what UNESCO is trying to achieve and I believe that the council has good intentions. The fact is, there are places on Earth that are so stunningly beautiful, so unique, and so vulnerable that a global approach to protection seems the only way forward. I just hope that the countries lucky enough to be the guardians of these places realize that are they to benefit from tourism in the long term, they need to control the way that tourism is conducted so that the natural beauty and value of these sites is not compromised.

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