Focus must be on profit through preservation
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United Nations World Heritage Site status is coveted, for completely understandable reasons. Acceptance into the ranks of almost 800 recognised and protected places brings prestige, attention from international experts and, most importantly for many local governments, tourist dollars.
There are also implicit and explicit responsibilities that come with being listed. These include the obligation to protect whatever it is that makes each site valuable or unique and the requirement to maintain a balance between development, tourism and preservation.
On the mainland, there has been a headlong rush to get onto the list. Thirty locations have already been accepted and a further 100 or so are pending. Unfortunately, potential monetary gain seems to figure prominently for many of the nominating parties, while protection of natural or cultural treasures is often an afterthought.
China's national-level decision, revealed at the annual World Heritage Committee conference in Suzhou, to cut its application list back by half shows that there is recognition at the highest levels that the second part of the equation is just as important as the first. The next test will be whether local authorities get the message.
The committee sent a similar message this year by putting five Chinese sites up for review and possible inclusion on the 'danger' list. This is a subset of heritage sites that face immediate threat. Being included might bring some embarrassment for national governments, but it can also trigger international relief efforts and funds. Angkor Wat, which was placed on the list in 1992 because of threats from looting and other factors, clearly benefited from the help that came afterwards, so much so that this year's conference chose to take the site off the list.
Of the five from China, none were placed on the list after all, but the committee has already requested follow-up reports next year from three of them - Beijing's Imperial Palace, Lhasa's Potala Palace and Yunnan's Three Parallel Rivers Protected Area.
Sometimes damage can come from natural forces, but in too many cases, the threat is of human creation and therefore preventable. Looting, overzealous tourism development and projects such as the dams planned in and around the Yunnan site are just some examples. Things might change now that the emphasis is on quality over quantity.
Those cities and provinces that do not have the management and technical expertise to guarantee protection of nominated sites - or the willingness to put some tourist revenue into preservation - should wait until they are ready. After all, member countries can only propose one site at each annual conference, and the number will go up to two as of 2006. The sites themselves, especially the ones not under immediate threat of destruction, might well be better off this way.