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What the World Heritage Site Distinction Means for a Place

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Stepping foot in a place designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site is often a breathtaking experience. Considering the vast world we live in, it is slightly surprising to learn there are currently only 1,073 sites on this list. If you have ever traveled to one of these sites, or even if you have only read about them, you may wonder how a place comes to be marked with this special distinction.

In order for a site to be listed on the UNESCO World Heritage list, the guidelines state it must have outstanding universal value and adhere to at least one of 10 criteria, which range from being a masterpiece of human creative genius to containing important and significant natural habitats.

Only two sites have ever been removed from the list: Dresden’s Elbe River Valley because a four-lane bridge was built through its center and Oman’s Arabian Oryx Sanctuary because the State of Oman reduced the protected area by 90 percent. A site can be removed from the list if something is done to it which reduces its integrity as a site of universal cultural value.

There are 54 sites currently designated as “in danger.” These places are not as obvious as one might assume and the threats are just as varied as the geography. For instance, due to terrorism, climate change and urban development, respectively, the cultural landscape and archaeological site of the Bamiyan valley in Afghanistan, Belize’s barrier reef reserve system and the historic center of Vienna, Austria, are on this list.

Visiting one of these sites does not just show an admiration for its cultural or natural beauty, but it infers a commitment to maintaining the cultural integrity of the past in a world moving rapidly forward.

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