What Exactly is a UNESCO World Heritage Site?


You may have seen the title assigned to areas in countries you have visited, or presented as a selling point when you are doing initial research, but what exactly is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and what are the criteria for becoming one?

UNESCO stands for United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and the organisation was founded in 1945. Contrary to what you may be aware, UNESCO governs more than solely a list of the world’s most significant sites. This is just one element of UNESCO: it also orchestrates co-operation and collaboration between the world’s nations in regards to education, sustainability, science, and health amongst other sectors, in order to promote and instill peace and security. The organisation deals with areas such as developing and third world countries, the HIV/AIDs epidemic, and indigenous peoples.

So what do the World Heritage Sites have to do with it?

The World Heritage Site list was first established in 1972. Did you know China has the second highest number of UNESCO sites in the world? It makes sense, considering it is the third largest country in the world, with one of the richest cultural, political and social histories on Earth. UNESCO defines World Heritage Sites as “Areas of special cultural or physical significance.” Each submission has to meet certain specific criteria to be granted a place on the list, and can come under three categories: natural, cultural or mixed significance.

The aim of the World Heritage Site List, in line with the organisation’s overarching aims, is to protect significant sites worldwide, such that constant maintenance and management can ensure the preservation of the physical sites and their social and cultural importance.

This list is increased every year, but sites can equally be removed or have a tentative place on the list if they no longer meet the criteria for the title. Unfortunately, many of the sites labelled as “In danger” include those in Middle-Eastern and African states experiencing civil and political unrest and war, as well as national parks and rainforests at the mercy of deforestation, poaching, climate change and extreme weather.

There are currently in excess of 1,000 sites listed, and some of them are notoriously difficult to access. However, after China, Spain, France, and Germany have the next highest number of sites which are conveniently close to home. For the avid student traveller on a budget, you will be pleased to know that Italy has the highest number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, so if you fancy an Italian inter-rail journey next summer, you may be able to cross off a fair few in one trip!


Sub-editor 2017/18. Third year Biology with Linguistics student. Interested particularly in global health, genetics and nutrition. Very disposed towards writing about things that haven't quite been explained yet.

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