World Heritage – a well-kept secret

Nearly one thousand wonders of the world - created by people or by nature - have been given status as World Heritage. New research shows that most people do not understand the concept of World Heritage or do not know why places are awarded this status.

STRUGGLE OVER SYMBOLS: 'World Heritage is the foremost international recognition that a location can achieve, but the National Park symbol is often preferred', says Herdis Hølleland. (Photo: Mark Oldham) 

What do the Pyramids in Egypt, the Great Wall of China, the Victoria Falls in southern Africa, and Bryggen in Bergen have in common? They are all included on UNESCO's list of natural and cultural World Heritage: the World Heritage List. The list includes heritage of unique and universal value - heritage that belongs to all of humanity. Nearly 950 places, both natural and cultural, are included on the list.


'This year, it is 40 years since UNESCO adopted the convention on natural and cultural world heritage. Over the years, nearly 200 countries worldwide have signed the convention and thus become obligated to protect national cultural and natural heritage sites that are on the World Heritage List. The World Heritage Convention is considered one of UNESCO's great successes. But do we have reasons to cheer?' asks Herdis Hølleland in the Department of Culture Studies and Oriental Languages. She participates in the Kultrans research project at UiO.

Hølleland is currently writing her doctoral dissertation on World Heritage, and has carried out fieldwork in the Tongariro National Park in New Zealand and in the Greater Blue Mountains in Australia.

'One of the things I wanted to know was what relationship travellers have to World Heritage. Are they aware of the status of the places they visit, do they know what World Heritage means and why the places have been awarded this status?' Hølleland says.

Lack of insight

Many local communities and national, regional and local authorities around the world are working hard to have their places included on the list. World Heritage is seen as a good brand name with considerable power to attract visitors. Indeed, the 900+ World Heritage Sites attract millions of tourists every year.
Yet is there a connection between the values that governments, experts and the World Heritage Committee ascribe to the World Heritage Sites and the reasons people choose to visit these places?

To answer this question, the young researcher has interviewed tourists in Tongariro and the Greater Blue Mountains. In total, she has interviewed 500 visitors from all over the world.

'I have asked tourists at the two World Heritage Sites whether they have heard of the "World Heritage" concept. Three out of four said they had. Yet having heard of the concept once or multiple times is not the same as having insight into what it means. I therefore asked those who said they had heard of the concept to explain in their own words what it means. It quickly became apparent that World Heritage is not something that "most people" talk about: few had strong opinions about the issue, and many really struggled to clarify what they thought the concept meant.'

Thus, while three out of four had heard about World Heritage, nearly 40 per cent had little or no knowledge about it.
In addition to collecting information about visitors' general knowledge about World Heritage, Hølleland wanted to find out whether tourists were aware that they were at a World Heritage Site, and whether they knew why the place had been included on the list of shared human heritage.

'Nearly half of those who visited the two World Heritage Sites were unaware of this status. Absolutely no-one said that they had travelled to Tongariro or the Greater Blue Mountains because of the World Heritage status.'

Hølleland's study also shows that tourists have little knowledge or understanding of why the two places are included on the World Heritage List.
'This applied in particular to Greater Blue Mountains. More than 90 percent of visitors were either unaware of the area's status, or could not say why it was on UNESCO's list.'

Problem of dissemination Though the study has been conducted in two specific locations, the researcher believes that it can tell us something about World Heritage Sites generally.

Why do so many know so little about World Heritage?

'One important reason is that no common method has been created to inform the public about what World Heritage is, and why each location has been awarded the status. The information about the World Heritage Sites varies a lot. While New Zealand has a standard way of marking the sites and providing information about them, in the USA it is common to not refer to UNESCO and World Heritage at the sites that in fact have this status.

Though World Heritage is the foremost international recognition that a natural or cultural environment, a place, building or monument can achieve, it is nevertheless only one on a long list of competing statuses. The use of signs, symbols and information is often confusing and inconsistent. This can be more confusing than informative for visitors. We could call it a struggle over symbols, in which the national park symbol - which often has a longer history - wins.'

The researcher believes that explaining what World Heritage is to a broad public is challenging.

'If World Heritage is to be a meaningful and understandable concept, the dissemination must be much better than it is today: signs and other information materials must be written in a language that people understand. World Heritage tends to be used a self-explanatory "sign", both at the various World Heritage Sites, in guidebooks and in other information materials. Yet as my study shows, the content of this sign is not well known', Hølleland points out.

Understand in order to protect When the World Heritage Convention was created 40 years ago, it was to conserve and protect the world's natural and cultural heritage. If we really do wish to preserve these places for the future, people must understand why this is important.

'World Heritage must be made a meaningful concept that are part of tourists' consciousness. One of the challenges as the convention is entering its fifth decade, is to move attention away from just listing new places and to protecting and disseminating information about places that already are on the list of world wonders.'


By Trine Nickelsen
Published Aug. 30, 2012 1:13 PM - Last modified Sep. 3, 2012 10:06 AM