Warning over commercialising heritage sites
Analysts say preservation should always come before economic gain
China is the only country to have had at least one site inscribed into Unesco's World Heritage List each year over the past decade, but analysts warn that an official obsession with such listings for economic gain could compromise the nation's heritage conservation efforts.
China ranks third in the world, with 43 natural and cultural world heritage sites. Italy heads the list with 47 sites, followed by Spain with 44.
The site of Xanadu, the remains of the summer capital of Yuan dynasty ruler Kublai Khan, north of the Great Wall, was inscribed into the World Heritage List in June, becoming China's 43rd such site.
The State Administration of Cultural Heritage said last month that more than 500 heritage protection laws and regulations had been enacted, underscoring its conservation efforts, particularly over the past decade.
The director of Nanjing University's Cultural and Natural Heritage Research Institute, Professor He Yunao , attributed the large number of Chinese sites on the list to the country's abundant heritage resources as a major Eastern civilisation.
He said central and regional governments' enormous interest in the list was a result of globalisation, because every city longed for some branding vehicles to boost its international profile.
"The nurturing of a commercially successful, world-class brand is both time-consuming and very costly," he said. "It's very tempting if they realise they can achieve that goal by turning some of the treasures their ancestors left behind into a world heritage site."
The impoverished Henan city of Dengfeng triggered a heated debate two years ago when it was reported to have spent a total of 790 million yuan (HK$982.5 million) in a successful bid for world heritage status for "the Centre of Heaven and Earth", a cluster of historic temples and gates including the famed Shaolin Temple.
In November, the state administration unveiled a list of 45 sites for nomination for world heritage status from next year on.
Professor He said these sites were all of great heritage value, but it could take decades for them to be nominated and much longer to be inscribed because in recent years China had usually presented only two sites, one cultural and one natural, for evaluation each year.
The evaluations are carried out by two Unesco bodies, the International Council on Monuments and Sites and the World Conservation Union.
He Shuzhong , founder of the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Centre, a conservation advocacy group, said world heritage meant better protection for such sites as a result of international collaboration in conservation efforts.
But he said local authorities were often too carried away by the publicity and commercial implications of a prospective world heritage site and overlooked their responsibility for its protection.
"A lot of local governments in China have turned these sites into five-star or six-star tourist destinations or into high-end resorts," he said.
A decision by management at Slender West Lake, in the Jiangsu city of Yangzhou , to double admission fees to 150 yuan during this year's Labour Day holiday triggered a national outcry over pricey fees charged at mainland heritage sites.
Slender West Lake was included in a tentative list by China for world heritage nomination in 2008.
Admission fees for Huangshan (Yellow Mountain) in Anhui , which was inscribed into the World Heritage List in 1990, have nearly tripled to 230 yuan since 2002, to great public dismay.
Professor He, who took part in the successful bid for world heritage status for the Imperial Tombs of the Ming and Qing Dynasties in 2000, said a successful bid would certainly bring a lot of benefits for local governments, but preservation should always come first.
The state administration, citing a national survey of cultural relics, said 44,000 of the 766,700 immovable cultural relics on record had been lost, largely due to development, since 1985.