World Heritage FAQs

Background in Brief

What is a World Heritage Site?

A World Heritage Site is one that has been formally determined under procedures established through the World Heritage Convention as representing the most outstanding examples of the world’s natural and cultural heritage.  The Convention seeks to foster worldwide understanding and appreciation for heritage resources and to recognize and preserve those that possessing the most exceptional outstanding universal value to humanity.  Sites meeting the criteria are inscribed on the World Heritage List; as of 2011, the list contained 936 Sites in 148 countries, including 21 U.S. Sites.

Examples of well-known World Heritage Sites include Chartres Cathedral in France, the site of the Temple of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, the Taj Mahal in India, Machu Picchu in Peru, the site that includes the Valley of the Kings in Egypt, and the Grand Canyon in the United States.


How are World Heritage Sites designated?

Sites can only be nominated by the country in which they are located and, in the United States, only with the concurrence of all private land owners (most U.S. sites are on Federal land).  Areas nominated by their own countries are evaluated by the Intergovernmental Committee for the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, known as the World Heritage Committee.  The World Heritage Committee, upon determining that a site meets the criteria for inclusion on the World Heritage List, inscribes the site on the List.  It receives assistance from expert international groups in its evaluations.


What is the World Heritage Committee?

The Committee is composed of representatives of 21 nations elected by the independent General Assembly of States Party to the Convention—the 186 countries that are party to the Convention.  The World Heritage Committee is responsible for implementing the Convention at the international level. The Committee establishes the criteria which properties must satisfy for inclusion on the World Heritage List and the List of World Heritage in Danger, meets annually, and awards assistance to sites.


What is the relationship between the World Heritage Committee and the United Nations?

The World Heritage Convention was proposed at the request of members of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and adopted by UNESCO.  Membership of the General Assembly of States Party to the Convention, which elects the World Heritage Committee, is similar to the membership of UNESCO; however, while the Committee receives help from UNESCO, the Convention’s General Assembly is independent of UNESCO. 

The World Heritage Centre provides the staff support and administrative services for the Committee.  The Centre consists of UNESCO staff and is housed in UNESCO’s headquarters building in Paris, France, but it has considerable autonomy within UNESCO and is in major ways responsible to the World Heritage Committee.


What benefits does World Heritage listing confer?

The World Heritage Committee awards funding to assist Sites, although such funding is limited.  Moreover, because World Heritage Sites are recognized as internationally important, international organizations often give priority to World Heritage Sites in making financial grants and providing technical assistance.  Finally, when a country nominates an area for World Heritage designation, it commits to protecting that site in the future; as a result, national governments and foundations also emphasize World Heritage Sites in their own allocations of funding and assistance.

An international designation further conveys upon sites a stature that announces to the world how precious and important—and worth visiting—a country’s heritage resources are.  Perhaps most important, international cooperation recognizes that no country has the intellectual or financial resources to address all its conservation and preservation concerns alone.  Through voluntary cooperation, all countries and land managers can do a better job of stewarding their own heritage resources.

Examples of benefits that have accrued to World Heritage Sites are included below.


How does listing affect management of a Site and a country’s control over its own Sites?

In voluntarily nominating a site, a country understands that designation requires a pledge to care for the property.  The Convention states:

Each State Party to this Convention recognizes that the duty of ensuring the identification, protection, conservation, presentation and transmission to future generations of the cultural and natural heritage … situated on its territory, belongs primarily to that State. It will do all it can to this end, to the utmost of its own resources and, where appropriate, with any international assistance and co-operation, in particular, financial, artistic, scientific and technical, which it may be able to obtain.

The convention also states that it does not affect property rights of individual countries, and that signatory countries have a duty to cooperate in protection of World Heritage Sites, to provide related help if another country requests it, and to desist from deliberate actions that might damage Sites.  Therefore, while a country voluntarily pledges to manage its World Heritage Sites in a manner that ensures their protection, it does not surrender any authority over its sites.

In the end, neither the World Heritage Committee, nor UNESCO, nor the United Nations has any power to force changes in Site management upon governments, public agencies, or private parties in the United States or any other country. The only authority the World Heritage Committee has over Sites is to remove them from the List—an action that has never yet been taken.


How does the U.S. identify areas to nominate for World Heritage status?

The Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks (hereafter Assistant Secretary) of the U.S. Department of the Interior may nominate properties to the World Heritage List (through the Department of State) following regulations based the World Heritage Convention and the U.S. law which implements it.  First, comments are sought on a Tentative List of potentially eligible sites through a notice in the Federal Register.  After considering comments received and consulting with the Federal Interagency Panel for World Heritage, the Assistant Secretary may propose for possible nomination a limited number of areas, which are again published in the Federal Register.  Property owners or managers must then prepare nomination documents.  The Federal Panel reviews the nomination documents and makes recommendations to the Assistant Secretary, who must then make the final decision on nominations to forward.

All U.S. nominations for World Heritage listing must have been formally designated as nationally significant, such as being a National Historic Landmark, National Natural Landmark, National Monument, National Park, or National Wildlife Refuge.  See below for applicable statutes.  Property owners and managers (including federal, state, or local land managers) must concur in writing to the nomination. If there is private property within a federally managed area, such as an “inholding” in a national park, the responsible federal official can concur for the unit, but cannot concur for any non-federal property interest within the boundaries of the unit.  Private parties that own or control properties and agree to their nomination must provide a legally enforceable protection agreement before final approval of the nomination.


Does the U.S. have a “Tentative List” now and if so, what’s on it?

Yes. The first U.S. Tentative List (then called the “Indicative Inventory of Potential Future U.S. World Heritage Nominations”) was prepared in 1982 and was last amended in 1990. That list has now been superseded by the 2008 Tentative List.  Properties on the Tentative List are not World Heritage Sites; they are merely sites that have previously been determined to be nationally significant and—based on National Park Service staff review and the Assistant Secretary’s view—a useful starting point to identify areas for possible nomination.  

There are 14 sites on the 2008 Tentative List; you can order a full-color portfolio, which the GWS co-produced with the National Park Service and the Department of the Interior.


Is the US currently nominating sites to the World Heritage List?

Yes.  Following the completion of the Tentative List, the US successfuly nominated Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in 2010, and it became a World Heritage site.  Other sites from the list will be nominated, but nomination does not by any means guarantee that the site will be accepted to the World Heritage List.


Information in Depth

Who are the organizations that advise the World Heritage Committee on its nominations?

Two independent bodies advise the World Heritage Committee on World Heritage nominations.  One provides advice on natural areas.  This is the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, known as IUCN.  The International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) focuses on cultural sites.  In addition to their roles in advising the World Heritage Committee, both of these groups operate as forums for dialogue and for promoting improved scientific and scholarly knowledge of conservation and preservation and application of this knowledge.


What is IUCN, which advises the World Heritage Committee on natural sites?

IUCN is one of the world’s largest and most important conservation networks. It is a worldwide union made up of states (countries) and non-governmental organizations that support its objectives and adhere to its statutes.  Individuals may become members of IUCN commissions, which include Ecosystem Management (CEM); Environmental Law (CEL); Protected Areas (WCPA); Species Survival (SSC); Education and Communication (CEC); and Environmental, Economic, and Social Policy (CEESP).  Currently IUCN includes 82 States, 111 government agencies, more than 800 non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and (on its commissions) some 10,000 scientists and experts from 181 countries in a unique worldwide partnership. IUCN’s formal mission is “to influence, encourage and assist societies throughout the world to conserve the integrity and diversity of nature and to ensure that any use of natural resources is equitable and ecologically sustainable.”  Its headquarters are in Gland, Switzerland, and it maintains staff in over 60 countries. It works closely with UNESCO and other United Nations agencies, but is independent of the U.N. Click here for more information on IUCN’s role in the World Heritage Convention.


What is the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) that advises the World Heritage Committee on cultural sites?

The International Council on Monuments and Sites, or ICOMOS, considers itself the only global non-governmental organization dedicated to the conservation and protection of cultural heritage places.  It is a membership organization made up of architects, historians, archaeologists, art historians, geographers, anthropologists, engineers and town planners, and others who share its objectives; it currently has over 7,500 members. ICOMOS operates “based on the principles enshrined in the 1964 International Charter on the Conservation and Restoration of Monuments and Sites (the Venice Charter).” It works closely with UNESCO and other United Nations agencies, but is independent of the U.N.


What authorities are used to signify that a U.S. site is “nationally significant”?

A property qualifies as “nationally significant” only if it is: A property that the secretary of the interior has designated as a National Historic Landmark (36 CFR part 65) or a National Natural Landmark (36 CFR part 62) under  provisions of the 1935 Historic Sites Act (Public Law 74-292; 49 Stat. 666; 16 U.S.C. 461 et seq.); an area the United States Congress has established by law as nationally significant; or an area the president of the United States has proclaimed as a National Monument under the Antiquities Act of 1906 (16 U.S.C. 433).


Who is on the advisory Federal Interagency Panel for World Heritage?

The Federal Interagency Panel for World Heritage is composed of representatives, named by their respective agencies, from the following agencies and offices:

 Additional representatives from other Federal agencies with mandates and expertise in heritage conservation may be requested to participate in the Panel.


What are some examples of benefits derived from World Heritage status?

One of the ways in which sites receive assistance is through the World Heritage Centre, which provides funding from the World Heritage Fund.  In addition, the World Heritage Centre and the World Bank have launched a network of institutions to coordinate efforts of those involved in cultural heritage preservation.  For example, since its beginning in 1998 the Bank’s Cultural Heritage and Development Network has grown to include individual specialists and a broad range of institutions providing expert advice, technical assistance, and capacity building in the field of culture and development. In addition to such projects as research on the Jerusalem historical database, the Centre is working with the Municipality of Christiansfeld, Denmark, to prepare an integrated development strategy for the preservation of the Moravian cultural heritage and organize a partnership of outstanding Moravian settlements in Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany, and South Africa. The possibility of a UNESCO/WHC serial listing is being explored. In addition, the Centre received a grant from the Historic Center Foundation in Mexico City to document current programs for the rehabilitation of Mexico City’s Historic Center.  In 2002, the Centre held an international seminar to address both the problems faced in safeguarding the cultural and natural heritage and innovative approaches to address them. 

An example of international cooperation engendered in support of World Heritage Sites is taking place in Africa.  Nearly all the members of the African Union (AU) are signatories to the World Heritage Convention.  The African Union has adopted an African Position Paper providing a strategic vision to address the challenges facing Africa in the protection and conservation of its heritage. Norway contributed funds to bring African heritage experts together to finalize the paper, and China, India, the Netherlands, and Israel made contributions for a related feasibility study. Africa is underrepresented on the World Heritage List, accounting for only seven percent of the properties thereon, but by 2002 almost 40 percent of the World Heritage Sites in Africa were on the list of World Heritage Sites in Danger. Africa faces constraints on funding to maintain its current sites. The Position Paper seeks to make African heritage more relevant to Africans’ lives and to make its World Heritage Sites self-sustaining and a means to assist Africa’s cultural and economic progress. A 10-year action plan targets increasing the number of African sites on the World Heritage list and reducing the number and eventually removing all African sites from the list of World Heritage in Danger. The action plan identifies the strengthening of heritage protection and management as a priority, as well as the improvement of institutional, policy, and legal frameworks. A newly launched African World Heritage fund is essential for the implementation of the plan.

Signatories to the World Heritage Convention provide funding that supports the World Heritage Centre and directly assist other countries and sites. Among member states, Japan ranks first, along with the United States, in the size of its contributions to the World Heritage Fund. The Japanese Trust Fund for the Preservation of the World Cultural Heritage was set up in UNESCO in 1989. Japan’s accumulated contributions to this fund amounted to $42.6 million up to fiscal 2002. Utilizing this trust fund, Japan carries out preliminary surveys and actual preservation and restoration work on the world’s cultural heritage and also engages in a wide range of other cooperative activities, such as the dispatch of experts and staff, and training for local staff overseas.  Japan has undertaken restoration and preservation cooperation in a number of World Heritage Sites outside Japan, such as at the Angkor Monuments in Cambodia, the Chogha Zanbil site in Iran, and the Royal Palace of Abomey in Benin. In addition, Japan's cultural property research institutes, such as the National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, engage in various forms of cooperation, including international joint research on the preservation and restoration of cultural property and the training of experts, including joint research on the preservation and restoration. 

Also, many non-governmental organizations (NGOs)—non-profits, foundations established by for-profit entities, and for-profit companies—contribute to assisting World Heritage Sites.  For example, Mazars, a consulting company with expertise in cultural site preservation, supports Iryna Kravets in studying contrasting management of cultural resources in Edinburgh and Kiev.  The project is expected to result in an exchange of expertise that will deepen respect for the history and cultural of each site and improve the preservation of each.

The Shell Foundation is assisting in developing management expertise.  The Seychelles Islands Foundation (SIF) manages the Vallee de Mai in the Seychelles, whose rare palms and endangered black parrot draws an average of 50,000 tourists each year – almost half the annual total for the Seychelles.  Also under the management of SIF is the island atoll of Aldabra, a living laboratory for scientists who wish to observe an untouched ecosystem. The manager of SIF has a strong background in science and conservation, but no formal qualifications in management. This is typical of many World Heritage Site managers. To help such managers, the Shell Foundation joined forces with the World Heritage Centre and the University of Queensland, Australia, to share expertise from the Shell Group to improve the way natural World Heritage Sites are managed in developing countries. The model is based on the principle that many of the processes and policies demanded of successful businesses, such as human resources and strategic planning, apply to all organizations. The model was first piloted in the Seychelles, and a further pilot is underway in Uganda.


What does it mean to have a World Heritage Site on the List of World Heritage in Danger?

Assessments of and reports on World Heritage Site conditions carry out the World Heritage Convention’s vision of on-going cooperation and assistance to protect sites and assure that the World Heritage List continues to include extraordinary examples of the world’s heritage.  In 1998, the Committee placed assessment and reporting on a cyclic basis. Each nation now reports on all its sites every 6th year, providing a “snapshot” of existing conditions.  The first set of U.S. Periodic Reports was presented in February 2005.   Signatories also are expected to make reports on an as-necessary basis to reflect a change in conditions.

The periodic reports provide an opportunity both to assess any potential problems and to develop recommended actions, perhaps leading to assistance.  If the problem is serious enough, the Site could be placed on the list of World Heritage in Danger; in other cases, the problems may be addressed without reaching this point. Examples of past or potential issues include air pollution degrading stone elements, poaching of wildlife or theft of cultural artifacts, visitation pressure, and effects of proposed development such as internal roads or nearby mineral extraction.  If management-related actions to counter problems are not feasible, other steps could be taken.  An update of the nomination in whole or part might be undertaken.  For example, a revision of the boundary to reduce or enlarge the World Heritage Site might be proposed.  


Why do controversies arise about including sites on the List of World Heritage in Danger?

Many types of development are subject to controversy.  Whereever there is internal or other controversy surrounding an existing or proposed development in or near a World Heritage Site, opponents may use an area’s World Heritage status to garner support for their point of view.  As a result, development proponents see the potential for a Site to be included on the List of World Heritage in Danger as an anti-development tool.

In its reporting function, the World Heritage Committee must make judgments about the extent to which any development threatens to affect the qualities and features for which a site was designated. On the other hand, experience has shown that inclusion on the List of World Heritage in Danger, without the consent of the country in which the Site lies, is not productive.  The World Heritage Convention exists to elicit international cooperation, not as a tool for resolution of internal disputes about site management or related issues internal to a country. 

While the World Heritage Committee can provide limited assistance to prevent the need to list a site as in danger or to improve one so listed, the Committee is dependent upon countries to take actions voluntarily to protect and preserve their own Sites.  As previously stated, the only recourse open to the World Heritage Committee if a Site were to become too compromised is to remove it from the list—an action that has never yet been taken.

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