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D you have an unquenchable curiosity about global culture and natural wonders? If so, then it is likely you’ve been to a UNESCO World Heritage site. World Heritage sites offer an invaluable look into the history, culture, and natural beauty of a destination. So, it makes sense that most of us who prioritize responsible travel and cultural connections visit World Heritage sites during our travels. However, the act of visiting these sites and learning about culture isn’t enough to check the box on sustainable travel. In some cases, unbeknownst to many travelers, we can actually contribute to the cultural and environmental degradation of UNESCO locations. Because of this, it is imperative we visit UNESCO sites responsibly. This responsible travelers’ guide to visiting UNESCO World Heritage sites sustainably and ethically should be your go-to pocket guide to ensure you have a positive impact rather than a negative one. [no_toc]
While being crowned with UNESCO’s World Heritage status may seem like a genuine panacea to protect the world’s most precious locations, in some cases, it can spell a burden. Once listed, millions of tourists flock to some of these sites putting pressure on local resources. Communities may not have the resources or capacity to respond in time. Ultimately travel can work in line with UNESCO goals or against them. Unless we, as travelers, take the time to learn about the most pressing threats to these sites and take actionable steps to ensure their preservation, we indirectly (and sometimes directly) contribute to the destruction of the very reason why we choose to travel. Our job is to do everything in our power to ensure these sites are around for generations to come and that travel is a tool for conservation.
This responsible traveler’s guide to visiting UNESCO World Heritage sites sustainably is a long and thorough (but not exhaustive) exploration of the nuances of travel’s impacts on World Heritage, and actionable steps for sustainable World Heritage travel. Please make sure you pin this site, bookmark it, and share it with your friends so you always have it handy as a tool to help us save travel from harmful behaviors.
- Don’t miss my guide to sustainable ecotourism– which, similar to this post, explores the good and the bad and how we can ensure ecotourism benefits our destinations.
- Curious about tourism leakage? This concept shows up repeatedly in this post – so make sure you are familiar with it, by reading this guide to tourism leakage.
What We’re Covering
- UNESCO World Heritage sites and status honor Earth’s most precious cultural and natural wonders.
- Visiting these sites and experiencing the customs is a great way to engage in sustainable tourism.
- However, many of these sites are buckling under pressure from numerous threats, including unsustainable and mismanaged tourism.
- It is critical for travelers to understand the impacts of tourism for responsible tourism at UNESCO sites.
- If we don’t take action, we may undermine World Heritage goals and destroy the very reason we love to travel.
What is UNESCO World Heritage?
During an international treaty in the 70s, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared its commitment to protecting and preserving outstanding cultural and natural heritage. The UN gives status to the things and places that make our planet so special, such as landmarks, natural landscapes, historic towns, traditional song and dance, architecture, and more. Humanity’s and Earth’s cultural and natural heritage are irreplaceable and have a universal value that can bring us together while celebrating our diversity. World Heritage status honors those values offering protection, support, global recognition, funding, and more.
- There are 1,154 physical sites are listed across 167 governing bodies.
- 897 are impressive cultural landmarks – temples, castles, historic old towns, or ruins.
- 218 of these sites are natural biodiversity hot spots – national parks, nature reserves, coral reef systems, or rainforests.
- 39 are mixed cultural and natural sites
- 52 of these sites are listed as “In-danger” for various reason
- There are 88 are intangible cultural heritage listings – dances, craft skills, stories, music, and more. You can watch, see and listen to these online!
- 3 have been delisted for losing their cultural authenticity
While World Heritage aims to protect these sites, you can see some of them ultimately end up on the ‘in-danger’ list or delisted altogether. Additionally, according to the IUCN and UN, many more are threatened by a wide array of threats including both anthropogenic and natural threats.
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What are the Most Pressing Threats to UNESCO World Heritage Listings?
The threats to UNESCO sites include four main categories:
- Visitor Impact – overtourism and unchecked recreation causing erosion, littering, gentrification, defacing artifacts, cultural degradation, etc.
- Environmental – climate change, earthquakes, pollution, rising sea levels, etc.
- Industrial – urbanization and resource extraction from oil, mining, and logging companies
- Politics and global conflict – wars, weak policy and mismanagement, armed conflict, inequality, and poverty.
In this article, I will talk mainly about tourism’s impacts while highlighting all four. If you’re interested in learning about the threats beyond tourism in more detail, stay tuned for an in-depth article exploring the concept of No-Go UNESCO coming soon.
Threats from Tourism – Mostly Unsustainable Tourism
Numerous governing bodies identify mismanaged tourism, overtourism, and recreation as some of the greatest threats to heritage sites.
- 60% of natural sites are at significant risk from tourism and recreation.
- The UN identifies unchecked tourism as one of the main threats to cultural heritage sites.
Now, I would bet most people reading this article have already taken steps toward sustainable tourism. You might be thinking, “Well, I’m in the clear. I’m not the jerk carving my name into historical artifacts or taking a dump behind an ancient wall!” First, congratulations on not taking a dump while carving your name in a wall. Second, many ways tourism impacts these sites are unintentional and caused by indirect actions.
With every new UNESCO World Heritage listing, every traveler’s radar suddenly goes off with everyone booking tickets and sharing photos from these sites #UNESCO. Tour companies build these destinations into their itineraries and drop people off by boat or busload. Some of these sites were popular before their listing and have been dealing with tourism for decades. And thus, mass tourism ensues. As much as we don’t want to be part of mass tourism, admittedly, human nature and our #FOMO make it hard to stay away from the world’s iconic spots – they are iconic for a reason. Unfortunately, unchecked tourism growth in a region happens before proper systems are in place.
So, what are some of the impacts of unsustainable tourism?
In just four short years, Angkor Wat had a 100% increase in tourism visitors. Explosive and unplanned growth shocked local communities that could not quickly adapt and develop sustainable tourism. The Angkor Wat complex has survived more than 1,000 years, and within the era of mass tourism and since World Heritage listing, it has rapidly degraded. Many travelers describe the headache of dealing with throngs of people, waking up at 4 am just to see the site, and feeling crowded and like their experience was inauthentic. Other sites, such as the Taj Mahal or the Great Wall of China, can receive 80,000 people per day.
The concept of ‘tourismificaiton’ describes commodifying culture for tourist enjoyment. This can happen when tourists buy souvenirs but do so cheaply, contributing to the loss of artisan skills and craftsmanship. Additionally, when tourists treat culture as a commodity, the residents may even change their clothing or traditional stories to appeal to foreign tourists. These behaviors all contribute to the cultural degradation of a region.
Overtourism in Machu Picchu threatens the S. Americans Andean Cloud Forest – a biodiversity hot spot. The Andean Condor has been observed to leave the regions with heavy tourism. Unruly large groups of people can contribute to erosion, and parts of the historic ruins are sliding downhill. For perspective, the main site at Machu Picchu supported 500 Incan people. At the peak of overtourism in the area, thousands visited a day. Visitor quotes, local guides, and caps have been necessary to reduce the damage, but years of overtourism in the region has left its mark.
The boom and bust cycle of seasonal tourism means many locals that work around these cultural sites have little to no work during the off-season. Additionally, many people travel in large groups and utilize a foreign guide from their organized tour, leaving many local guides without a job contributing to economic tourism leakage of a region. Jobs in tourism may only be accessible for people who are educated and speak English marginalizing groups of people.
Ecotourism in the UNESCO marine site off Corisca has caused a significant decline in breeding pairs of Osprey birds. The area was closed to fishing and industrial exploitation to ensure the Ospreys had adequate food. Their population increased until nature-based tourism came to the region. The noise pollution and disturbance from tourists are now contributing to a decline in the species. Many fisher people lost access to the marine protected area in order to help preserve the Osprey birds and then had to watch as tourism disrupted their former fishing zone. Policies such as this can create conflict with locals and give more rights to tourists than locals, further increasing inequality.
The Semarang Old Town in Indonesia saw a significant increase in gentrification and an overall reduction in the quality of life for locals. Tourists outpriced locals, resulting in a loss of shelter and vendors selling necessities, such as food, to locals. This isn’t necessarily the fault of tourists, but rather poorly managed tourism led by the government.
Something similar has happened in Hội An, where instead of a variety of shops serving both locals and tourists, most buildings in the old town are now cafes or galleries to suit the needs of tourism. Many describe the Hội An UNESCO old town as authentic in appearance only – the beautiful historic buildings remain, but their function is only to serve tourists. The impacts from over-tourism are becoming so noticeable that even as Vietnam pushes for sustainable tourism development, tourists themselves are choosing not to return. Here it is important to remember that as travelers we have the option to never return or leave a destination that we single-handedly trash, but the locals living there can not leave and are left dealing with our mess.
Even in more developed countries with the capacity and budget to manage tourism, such as within the EU, world heritage status can become a burden. In the historic center of Venice, many locals complain that they are drowning from both waves of cruise ships and the thousands of people they bring. Many other historic European old towns, such as Prague, suffer from crippling overtourism. Tourism at the UNESCO heritage cave, Škocjan, alters the microorganism biome with system-wide impacts. Nightlife tourism in the heritage site of Ibiza contributes to increased crime and drug use.
Even in the United States where many of our national parks double as world heritage sites are suffering from overtourism. Places like the Grand Canyon experience increases in litter and people only visiting 1-2 trails contributing to erosion. Busses drop off loads of people for a quick photo before moving on. Many people take little time to learn about the Indigenous history in these parks.
Infrastructure development and urbanization meet the rising demand for large numbers of tourists. New mega-hotels and roads cause ecosystem fragmentation, erosion, and pollution. Forests and other ecosystems are destroyed to make room for these facilities.
Tourism demands a lot of resources, including water and food, and it puts a lot of pressure on local resources. In some cases, locals go without water, while hotels utilize precious reserves for tourists.
Ultimately it is overtourism or mismanaged tourism that ruins the experience for other travelers. No one likes to fight through swarms of people at 6 am to see a site – no matter how amazing. Somewhere along the way, you might feel like you are no longer visiting an iconic piece of history, and instead, you are surrounded by pushy, loud tourists. Somewhere along the way, you might realize you are no longer getting the unique cultural experience you initially ventured out to find. When this happens, tourism fails us all: the traveler, the local, all while undermining the goals of UNESCO heritage.
This quote from Ben Salt, a dedicated responsible traveler, reflects on how poorly managed tourism can undermine our travel experiences in World Heritage sites like Bagan, Myanmar.As I steadied myself so as to not topple from the upper tier of a popular temple, I reflected on what I was a part of. Watching the sun rise or set anywhere is often magical. Even more so over a landscape decorated with so many visible stories of an ancient, bygone age. But, when throngs of other tourists are bused in to jostle for prime position beside you - elbows, phones and cameras held aloft, not for me. Poorly managed tourism numbers not only pose a threat to the heritage and significance of a site, but also its very existence from human-induced degradation and overdevelopment.Click To Tweet
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The impacts of overtourism can be so drastic to certain sites that some experts even question whether UNESCO status is more a burden than a blessing, especially in developing countries. Often, many communities ignore the negative social and environmental impacts of overtourism while focusing on the substantial economic benefits from tourism. However, as we’ve learned, tourism that ignores any one of the three pillars of sustainable tourism, let alone two, can not be considered sustainable long term.
I know that was depressing, but we will cover some solutions and positive impacts of tourism to UNESCO sites in just a minute – so hang tight.
Climate change is the most significant environmental threat. Rapidly changing weather patterns cause coral bleaching at UNESCO Great Barrier Reef. Other ecological hazards include natural disasters such as forest fires, flooding, coastal erosion, and earthquakes.
Unfortunately, tourism often contributes to environmental degradation, including the spread of invasive species, erosion, littering, ecosystem fragmentation, and depletion of natural resources. Impacts from tourism and the environment go hand in hand in a vicious feedback loop.
Many World Heritage sites are part of biodiversity and resource hot spots. You think status would be a given to not exploit resources, but that isn’t always the case. The Salar De Uyuni holds one of the world’s largest lithium deposits. Developing it for mining is a very complex issue and if not done properly in collaboration with environmental codes could come with consequences for the environment, local communities, and its world heritage status.
The World Heritage Sumatran Rainforest is on the “In-Danger” list due to threats from the logging industry and agricultural development. These examples highlight the difficulties of balancing resource demand and preservation.
The UN can award heritage status regardless of location, with many listings in unstable geopolitical or war zones. These governing bodies may lack the resources, means, or desire to enforce the protection of these areas. Additionally, some governments may see more value in economic development through industrial development.
The Arabian Oryx Sanctuary in Oman lost its heritage status because the government reduced the sanctuary’s size by 90%, all but certainly sealing the fate of Arabian Oryx to extinction in the region. All six UNESCO sites in Syria are in danger due to the political instability and war in the region.
Can Tourism Be A Tool for Cultural Preservation, Instead?
By the time many destinations grapple with the reality of the impact of overtourism, finding sustainable solutions can be an uphill battle. This uphill battle might be with tourists who push against visitor quotas or have certain expectations in their minds of a destination. Perhaps it will be with the government that wishes to prioritize economic benefit while excluding local needs.
UNESCO offers as much help as they can to help facilitate collaboration among local communities, governments, tourism boards, tourists, and land managers so that everyone can enjoy these sites for longer. When these groups work together that is when the magic starts to happen. One thing that can help is when travelers take the initiative to be part of the solution.
While some cast doubt on whether world heritage status is a burden, UNESCO has many success stories, contributing to the counterargument that UNESCO is a necessary lifeline for many of our planet’s most precious treasures.
Most branches of the UN and many others agree that that path forward must include well-managed, sustainable, equitable, and community-led tourism, which can offer many benefits. These benefits include tourism as a tool for conservation, poverty alleviation, peace, gender equality, and economic equity for developing nations.
World Heritage status saved places like Delphi in Greece and the Whale Sanctuary of El Vizcaino in Mexico from development and exploitation. Digging deeper, some sites, especially during the pandemic, are suffering from under tourism – putting them at greater risk from other threats such as industrial exploration and unstable political turmoil. In these situations, tourism can become an incentive to move forward cautiously with sustainable resource management.
Sustainable and community-led ecotourism at UNESCO sites in the D. R Congo has contributed to a significant increase in the population of critically endangered mountain gorillas. Thanks to tourism the population has increased from 400 to over 1,000 proving that community-led tourism can deliver. The tourism model in parts of Africa can deter poaching with equitable economic incentives where the entire community benefits.
The World Heritage site of Uluru is undergoing an Aboriginal revitalization period. Tourism facilities and companies in the Uluru region are now almost entirely owned and operated by Aboriginal communities. Instead of engaging in the offensive act of climbing Uluru, tourists can now partake in community-led tourism. Tourists can take part in Indigenous-led experiences, visit a community center, purchase hand-crafted art, and learn about ecology through an Indigenous lens all while supporting Aboriginal training initiatives in hospitality and management. The experience was put back in the hands of the Native people for an enriching cultural exchange between the traveler and the Indigenous stewards of the land.
My husband who is Australian spent some time in Uluru a few years ago with his entire family. He described this new Indigenous-led experience as enlightening and important for Australians and tourists alike to learn about Australia’s diversity and ancient history.
Tourism is breathing new life into Uzbekistan after it recently became more accessible for travel. As I explored the World Heritage sites in Uzbekistan I was given the privilege to learn about Islamic culture, art, history in a mind-blowing experience. One of my favorite things I learned was that each color and pattern in the riles represented something different. For example, the geometric shapes intentionally don’t depict specific figures because they are meant to inspire the onlooker to think in an enlightened and spiritual way. I developed such an appreciation for parts of the world I grew up only hearing negative things about and I fell in love with the destination.
We don’t need to be the problem – we CAN be part of the solution! We, travelers, are in a powerful position walking a fine line between protecting or degrading culture. Right here, right now, YOU and I need to decide to be better travelers and stewards of our world heritage. It will require some sacrifice on your part, and it may at times be challenging. By educating ourselves and changing our behaviors, we can be a positive force and a great incentive for local communities to engage in sustainable community-led tourism while protecting these sites from outside threats for generations to come.
Ok, so how can we make sure tourism is a tool for preservation for UNESCO World Heritage Sites?
As long as you commit to being part of the solution and not the problem. Tourism benefits can outweigh the negatives, but it takes effort. We are one piece of the puzzle. Sustainable tourism, driven by demand from people like us, combined with good governance and community-led tourism, can help alleviate the most pressing threats to UNESCO.
Here are some actionable steps for a responsible guide to visiting UNESCO World Heritage sites.
17 Sustainable Travel Tips for Visiting UNESCO World Heritage Sites
Implementing these 17 sustainable travel tips will often lead to enriching and positive travel experiences that benefit both you and your destination.
If you don’t believe me, take it from Ben Salt. Who, in contrast, to his experience with over-tourism in Bagan had a transformative experience in the Salar de Uyuni during the off-season when he embraced many of these 17 principles and you can see the rich experience he had because of this.
'For four days, I traversed the ever-changing, otherworldly landscapes of southwestern Bolivia towards the town of Uyuni, which sits remote and isolated beside an unfathomably vast salt flat. I’d booked the tour with a small, locally-owned operator, which meant my money went where it was most needed. It was also rainy season there, and so low season for tourism, as was my wish.'Click To Tweet
“I stayed within desolate huddles of basic, brick buildings, inhabited only by a few families. I walked beneath volcanoes, across vast, barren plateaus, beside colour-changing lakes, gurgling geysers and strange, petrified rock formations, on dirt, sand, rock, snow and salt. But I’d had the sort of meaningful experience that can only come from the connection I now felt to both my indigenous guide and driver and everything I’d learnt about the land to which these people are inextricably linked. Without those shared moments and meaningful cultural exchanges, travel has always felt increasingly hollow for me – at times, even colonial, voyeuristic and harmful.”
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1. Engage all Three Pillars of Sustainability
Before we get into the nitty-gritty, this is a good reminder that no visit to a UNESCO site can be considered sustainable without targeting all three pillars of sustainability. Before your trip, you should be able to identify all the ways you are benefitting the socio-economic well-being of the local community and the surrounding environment. For an easy way to do this, I make a Venn diagram and flesh out each section. If you are unsure – email your tour company or accommodation and ask them how they benefit all three! If any of your circles are missing details, ask yourself how you can do better? I always say that it will be almost impossible not to have some negative impact, but as long as the good outweighs the pat and you can identify positive impacts in all three categories – you, my friend, are on your way to becoming a responsible traveler to UNESCO World Heritage sites.
2. Go Against the Grain
You hopefully picked up on a theme here – one of the biggest problems is overtourism.
There is a concept in conservation science called carrying capacity. Tourism managers increasingly use this equation to determine a sustainable capacity for the number of visitors per day. Many sites that suffer from overtourism operate well above the carrying capacity with large groups of people showing up at the same place and time thus reducing the quality of education, management, environment, and experience.
Diffusing mass tourism may be one of the most meaningful and impactful things you can do to reduce your impact – and it is one of the easiest! To help alleviate the pressure from overtourism, you should go against the grain. Visit World Heritage sites off-season. This is a great way to enjoy a location without the crowds. I visited Meteora and Delphi in the middle of January and the locals were so friendly and welcoming our experience was much more relaxing than fighting our way through crowds in peak season.
Visit the lesser-known UNESCO sites that might be suffering from under tourism. Under tourism puts UNESCO sites at greater risk from other threats as places may not see the benefit in preserving them. Every UNESCO site has something unique to offer, and you’ll gain a rich cultural experience from diversifying your itinerary. Try not to think of this as missing out on a popular site or being an inconvenience to you – think of it as gaining a rich and unique cultural experience.
When visiting lesser-known sites, be mindful of…
You are setting the tone for tourism development in the region. Sites that suffer from under tourism may see you as an opportunity to attract more like-minded visitors. If you give them the impression that tourists want to commodify culture, treat locals like a photo booth, buy cheap souvenirs, drink Starbucks, and stay in large multi-national all-inclusive hotels – then that very well may be the future of this location. As an early visitor to these sites, it is your duty to set the standards. Let local communities know you are interested in authentic local food, homestays, local guides, the natural beauty, the real-life of locals, traditional language, song, dance, and stories. Let them know you are ok leaving the comforts of your home behind and want to engage and learn authentically. Let them know you care about nature and the people.
My husband was one of the first Australians to enter Uzbekistan on their new e-visa system, at a time when the country was just opening up to travel. We both considered ourselves to be responsible for shaping the tourism industry. We were respectful, generous, and engaged with locals in meaningful ways.
If local communities and governments see the economic benefit of community-led sustainable tourism, they are more likely to adopt this going forward.
So go forth and be a sustainable steward for these lesser-known destinations. You can feed two birds with a scone – diffuse mass tourism and set the foundation for sustainable tourism development.
This goes for some of the more popular and well-established sites as well. It is essential to talk with your money and actions to prove that sustainable well-managed sites can be profitable and worth everyone’s time.
3. Change Your Travel Style
Most of us who have been traveling throughout the last decade+ can probably say we are guilty of rolling up to the Leaning Tower of Pisa in a massive bus of young backpackers. We all stumbled out to take our photos dragged around for a few hours by a non-native tour guide before loading back on the bus for our next stop.
Sound familiar? I know, we’ve all lived and hopefully learned – or are learning.
A growing body of research says the longer tourists stay at a destination, the less impact they have on the local and natural environment – in some cases almost tapering off to a neutral impact – how cool is that? Staying longer, traveling slower, and touring in a small group led by a local significantly declines your impact.
A great example of this is at Machu Picchu – most people just visit the main site, which causes erosion and degradation of the Andean Cloud Forest ecosystem. But, the Peruvian government and local tour operators are committed to dispersing tourism and more people are taking the time to explore the region at a slower pace visiting places like Choquequirao and Vilcabamba to alleviate the pressure from overtourism.
Ensure you always visit sites with a small group led by a local guide or by yourself with a local private guide. Stay longer than a few hours hopping on and hopping off a bus at places like Pisa. Find a homestay, locally-owned, or eco-hotel check-in and allow yourself time to soak in the true beauty of these sites and their surroundings.
Even if the site is only big enough for a day trip, like Tivoli in Italy, you can still take time to explore the rest of Rome and the surrounding region slowly, soaking in the cultural highlights. This helps add context to the site you visited and enhances your learning experience.
While taking public transportation is great, you might want to reconsider visiting these sites in large tour busses or cruise ships owned by multi-national companies with non-native guides.
Can you reach your destination by train? If so give it a go! If not, can you reach there by direct flight? Use Google flights to calculate a low-carbon flight route.
4. Local, Local, Local
Locally driven tourism initiatives are more sustainable because they support and foster healthy and happy communities. Make sure you book a local hotel or accommodation. Use resources such as Homestay, Couchsurfing, or read a hotel’s about page to find the owner and their commitment to the local community.
Book and hire a local guide. Some locations, such as Angkor Wat, actually make this easy. To visit Angkor Wat, you must now utilize the services of a certified Cambodian guide. However, in places like Venice, this can be more complicated, and you need to go out of your way to find a local guide. If you ever find yourself in a position where you can’t find a certified local guide – reach out to the tourism board or check the UNESCO heritage site website to see if they offer tours with a local guide.
We hired several private guides committed to sustainability for our sustainable itinerary in Venice. Based on talks with other travelers, we had a very unique and special experience. We also used local guides in Turkey and appreciated an inside look into the country’s culture, history, and rocky future.
In summary, everything you do at these sites should be local: local accommodation, guides, restaurants, food, products, souvenirs, and more.
5. Stop the Tourism Leakage
The more you support local initiatives, the less tourism revenue leaks out from a destination – so these two go hand in hand. These sites are the ones buckling under the pressure from tourism, and therefore they are the ones that need the income to help manage these threats. At the end of the day, the locals are the ones cleaning up your trash, breathing your pollution, or paying to repair erosion. Your money, if kept locally, can help create sustainable locally-driven management and infrastructure development.
Learn all about tourism leakage and how to stop it, in my comprehensive guide.
6. Respect and Appreciate the Authentic
Often, before we visit these sites, we might have a picture in our head about what our experience might be, what the locals might look like, and what the surrounding nature will look like. Saying things like, “I am definitely going to see a wild tiger in the Sumatran rainforest,” or “I saw this cool photo of people fishing in Hội An – I can’t wait to get that exact photo too!” These images are shaped by other travelers, social media, and blogs.
If we go to UNESCO sites with these images in our heads, we begin to expect them, whether authentic or realistic. There is a chance you won’t see a tiger in Sumatra. If you expect that to the point of expressing severe disappointment in your reviews – locals might be tempted to bait a tiger so you can see one. This impacts the behavior and physiology of wildlife and can contribute to the wildlife trade.
Expecting your preconceived ideas about what local costume, song, or dance is before you experience it can contribute to the decline of traditional stories, loss of respect for elders, and other cultural degradation.
So, my best piece of advice here is to throw everything you think you know about a UNESCO site out the window and go in with an open mind. Then, when you arrive, respect the authentic culture, nature, and landscape for what it is and enjoy learning about culture and nature from a local through an authentic experience. I even stopped looking at social media before I go to places like UNESCO sites, it helps me go in with that open mind and enjoy the experience I am given with no expectations.
Take a minute to read through some of these TripAdvisor Reviews of UNESCO site Hội An: Some of the more negative reviews include a rant about the tourist fee to enter the old town and how to avoid paying. These fees can go a long way to help locals maintain the site’s integrity.
Additionally, some of the reviews complain that all the shops are just tourist traps, or the site lacks authenticity. I can only shake my head at these comments – not because they are wrong, but because we tourists can be our own worst enemy. By not respecting authentic local culture and life, these sites can turn into “tourist traps,” causing other tourists to complain about a said tourist trap.
7. Be a Rule Follower
Let’s return to the concept of carrying capacity and those “annoying” entrance fees mentioned in the TripAdvisor reviews. Let’s say the carrying capacity for the Alhambra is 500 people a day. This means that as long as no more than 500 people visit per day, only minimal or manageable degradation will likely happen. Most tourists will have a pleasant experience. Smaller groups of people are easier to monitor and manage. Guides can ensure there is quality education happening.
Many sites under threat from mass tourism may limit the number of people visiting by charging a fee, requiring reservations, setting a daily capacity limit, introducing time slots, or keeping people in small manageable groups.
These aren’t done to piss you off, even if that is what happens. Trust me, as a spontaneous traveler, I know how frustrating these restrictions can be. They can also exclude groups of people who are unable to buy tickets in advance. However, the very reality is without acknowledging the carrying capacity of a place there might not be a future. These capacity limits can also help improve experiences like Ben’s stressful sunset watching in Began.
Please make sure you respect these limits and restrictions. Don’t sneak into the area, duck under ropes, complain about fees, or go off-trail. Not knowing the rules is not acceptable. You should take time to visit visitor centers, read websites, and ask questions. Respect all rules and regulations to ensure you don’t unknowingly cause damage.
Since capacity limits can be frustrating, to avoid missing out on an experience due to restrictions, make sure you research your planned UNESCO site ahead of time. See if you need tickets, a certain time slot, or to budget for an entrance ticket. Alhambra is a notorious UNESCO site that is hard to get tickets. Planning and preparing is your best bet to ensure you can see these sites while respecting capacity limits.
8. Value Craftsmanship
There is a time and place to haggle, but with artisanal craftspeople at UNESCO World Heritage Sites is not one of those times or places. The authentic handcrafts and traditional styles are part of the region’s heritage. People spend entire lifetimes perfecting their skills, often through backbreaking working conditions. If you can financially visit these sites and choose to take home a souvenir, you can value the product with your money. Even though Uzbekistan was easy on my budget, one of the most expensive souvenirs I own came from the World Heritage site in Samarkand. I bought a beautiful display plate painted with a traditional style – that took years for the artist to master. I happily paid the price and then even tipped the artist.
Your certified local guide might suggest a vendor or have a tip on how to spot authentic pieces. When I was in Venice, our guide reminded us to look for stickers on the window certifying traditional craft skills.
Additionally, you should research your souvenirs. Many products may be made using endangered species such as Hawksbill turtle shells, fragile corals, or wood from an endangered tree. You should always ask about materials, know which are protected, and avoid buying souvenirs with materials sourced from animals. Even traditional practices are regulated in line with internationally recognized endangered species and wildlife trade – so there is no excuse to buy a keepsake that is produced with unethical materials as there are plenty of traditional options that are ethically sourced.
Don’t miss this guide to sustainable souvenirs and why they are a great gift for your friends or family back home – or to keep as a travel memory.
9. Reduce Waste and Consumption
Tourism is a significant drain on resources and contributes to an increase in solid waste (litter and trash) and even raw sewage. The impact can be severe in some locations, especially in developing countries that already struggle with waste management. Waste, sewage, and resource depletion reduce the quality of life for locals, strain municipal budgets, and contribute to biological changes in the ecosystem such as eutrophication and impacts on wildlife.
You should do your best to avoid all unnecessary consumption. Pack your water filter bottle like Lifestraw, so you can drink the local water. Visit local markets for plastic-free snacks for the road. Never throw your trash in an overflowing bin or on the ground. Avoid buying extra things you don’t need, and make sure you do adequate research to ensure you pack everything you need. Ask your guide for local waste-reduction tips. You should always look for and respect local recycling initiatives.
10. Take Responsible Clicks
You must implement responsible photography at UNESCO sites. In Hội An staged fishing photos that use locals as props for photoshoots (regardless of whether you pay them or not) is a massive ethical issue. This transforms authentic cultural experiences by commodifying the people as objects for your pleasure. Even if the locals seem enthusiastic, it does not make this type of engagement ethical or economically stable local term. It can have a cascading impact on the cultural integrity of a region. I suggest you read some tips on responsible travel photography to find authentic ways to capture moments.
It doesn’t help that these staged photos sell. This award-winning photo is highly controversial as it was part of a coordinated photoshoot. Remember that there are real people on the other side of your camera. No number of Instagram likes are worth engaging in this behavior. When photographers pass these images off as captures of a lifetime it paints an unrealistic picture of culture in the region. Focus on trying to capture natural moments, the colors, the details, and the real sights of a UNESCO site without standing in line for a staged opportunity.
Additionally, when it comes to natural UNESCO sites, make sure you are never on a photo tour that baits and provisions wild animals for your pleasure or to capture a photo. If you see a wild animal in its natural habitat without assistance from any human – excellent – take that photo mindfully. However, suppose you don’t see wildlife. In that case, it is ok! Know some happy tiger family is off snoozing blissfully. Many tours that focus on ethical wildlife experiences will never promise animal sightings and will instead promise traditional story-telling so you can still learn about the local ecology.
11. We Definitely Need Some Education
You should visit UNESCO World Heritage sites to learn. These aren’t just bucket-list destinations to smash through and collect destinations like notches on your belt. You are doing yourself and these sites a disservice if you do not learn something. Take time to learn about why these sites exist, their history, success, and threats. You can do this by again working with a knowledgeable and certified local guide, visiting museums visitor centers, reading educational sites, and most importantly, taking the time to learn instead of just blowing through quickly.
When I visited the Medina Azahara I noticed about 80% of the guests didn’t visit the museum/education center or have a local guide. A quick look through Google Reviews revealed many complained the ruins lacked context and were confusing. This could all be solved by taking the time to learn about the site. I visited the museum before seeing the ruins and gained a deep contextual understanding of the civilization behind the ruins. Additionally, it provided a great base of knowledge for my slow travel journey through the rest of Andalusia.
Ask yourself why you are visiting? If your answer is for an Instagram photo or just to check off a bucket list item, reconsider your motives. Ask yourself how both you and your destination can benefit from your presence.
12. Check your Shoes, Clothing, and Bags for Hitchhikers
Tourists are one of the world’s biggest vectors for the spread of harmful non-native invasive species. Harmful invasive species can significantly reduce the biodiversity of a region and threaten the most endangered and unique species at UNESCO biodiversity hot spots. Invasive species can spread through the dirt in your shoes, bugs in your backpack, spurs in your clothing, ballast systems in cruise ships, kayak paddles, and the non-native food if you litter. Before and after you enter any UNESCO natural site, you should clean your shoes of all dirt, wash your clothing in warm water – or check for any straggling seeds, and check your gear for any tagalongs. Never throw food scraps on the ground, no matter how “harmless” it might seem.
13. Remember, People Live Here
You are entering someone’s home when you visit many of these sites. Often, World Heritage sites are located near vulnerable groups of people such as Indigenous tribes, war-torn communities, low-income families, or other marginalized groups. You are in a place of privilege, and you should treat these sites, the people, and nature with the utmost respect. Don’t crowd and invade local space. Don’t stand in the middle of the street to take photos. Don’t assume people are there to serve and please you. Don’t be loud and trash the place—research and respect local customs and dress codes. You do not have more rights than the people that live there.
14. Choose Your Food Wisely
Eating authentic and local cuisine is a great way to engage in cultural exchange. Local, seasonal, traditionally cooked, and ethically sourced food is the best way to go! However, local food does not always mean ethical food, be careful you are not consuming endangered species or foods that are internationally banned or caught illegally with unsustainable practices. To reduce your tourism leakage, don’t go seeking out Mc. Donalds, and try something regional! Many UNESCO-heavy destinations, such as Italy, are embracing a slow food movement – and let me tell you, enjoying the experience of eating pasta while the sunsets over a Tuscan vineyard during a local homestay is an incredible experience.
As a vegetarian myself, I sometimes have difficulty finding authentic vegetarian food, but there is usually always a unique local vegetarian food worth trying.
15. Research Risks and Threats
Before you go, you should research the site, especially the threats. I can recommend the UNESCO site, open-source academic papers, reliable news sources like The Guardian, The Conversation, WWF, and the website of the place you are visiting.
While I have given a wide variety of threats from tourism to numerous sites, this list is not exhaustive, nor does it apply to each site. Every site is unique, and you should treat it as such. If you are visiting a site under threat from mass tourism – ask how you can visit off-season. If you are visiting a site at risk from environmental degradation, ask how to reduce your impact. If the location is at risk from logging, ask how your presence can deter industrial activity and foster sustainable tourism.
16. Give Back
Instead of traditional offsets, I take the time to donate to local causes. For example, are there any causes relating to that list of threats you just made that could benefit from your donation? If you learned that your nature-based tour experiences threaten Osprey populations, can you donate to an Osprey conservation group IN ADDITION to changing your behavior to be less invasive to the species?
Does tourism often contribute to the cultural degradation of an Indigenous group? Do they have a cultural center that you can make a donation to support? If you are struggling to find good causes, then donate to the UNESCO World Heritage directly. They use the funds to help the cultural integrity of these sites. No matter how big or small, donating is a great thing to do for anyone visiting UNESCO World Heritage sites responsibly.
17. Share Your Story, but do so Consciously
Whether you consider yourself a travel blogger, content creator, photographer, influencer, or just a travel enthusiast, you have influence! How you share your experiences matters.
If you perpetuate exploitative behaviors on social media or through your photography, you contribute to a negative social norm surrounding these behaviors. If you pay a local to stage a photo for you or glamorize harmful images touching animals, pretty soon everyone will be doing this questionable behavior. If you write captions that perpetuate colonial mentalities, you uphold this system.
Think carefully about the stories and images you choose to share.
To have a positive impact – do what I love to do after visiting a UNESCO or any other special place invite friends and family over for an evening of culture. Cook a recipe you learned, play traditional music from the World Heritage site, and share your responsibly captured travel photos and stories. Tell your friends about the people you met, the unique species you learned about, the food you tried, and how excellent your local guide was. Share the threats and daily behaviors they can adopt at home or during their next trip to reduce those threats.
Practice story-telling responsibly on your blog and social media.
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This is something I strive to do, but I am always learning to do better. Please follow along on my journey
The New Path Forward for Sustainable Tourism at UNESCO Sites
Many UNESCO World Heritage sites buckling under the pressure from tourism are reconsidering how they approach visitor management, which is great! For example, Angkor Wat now requires certified Cambodian local guides. The Škocjan Caves are utilizing the concept of carrying capacity to minimize tourists spreading microorganisms. Machu Picchu and Peru are trying to redistribute the tourism load while promoting alternative Inca locations. They have also implemented capacity limits and quotas, requiring advanced registration to trek. Additionally, the use of certified local guides is increasing for treks.
These are all steps that the UN, destination managers, governments, local tour companies, and communities can take to protect these sites. Still, we tourists and travelers are responsible for our actions. By mindfully visiting UNESCO sites to have a positive impact, rather than a negative, we help create a demand for sustainable and responsible tourism at our World Heritage locations.
Discuss, Share, and Spread the Curiosity
Thanks for sticking around until the very end. I know that was a lot of information to process. However, using this sustainable travel guide to visit UNESCO sites respectfully can help ensure these sites are around for future generations. Otherwise, these sites risk losing what makes them so valuable from both tourism and additional external threats.
Make sure you save this post so you can come back to it when you are planning a sustainable trip to any of the world’s amazing World Heritage sites.
- What was something you learned about the threats to these UNESCO sites?
- How will you change your behaviors when visiting UNESCO World Heritage sites?
- Have you visited a UNESCO site before and seen some of these problematic behaviors in yourself or other tourists? Why do you think embracing more mindful travel practices to preserve these sites matters?
- Did you visit a World Heritage site and have a great experience? Tell us about it in the comments, and what do you think made it so great? Did you hire a local guide or visit off-season?
Thanks for committing to be a more responsible traveler when visiting Earth’s most precious destinations. Make sure you let us know that you commit to more responsible UNESCO travel in 2022.
I’ve been to so many UNESCO World Heritage Sites and seen tourists littering and standing all over the ruins or on walls. This is a great post for people to read so that they know how to act when travelling to these types of sites.
Right! I see this behavior all the time and I truly don’t understand why people think it is ok to just trash the homes of local people and literally our planet’s most valuable and treasured places. Hopefully, this post can reach a few people and encourage them to be mindful of their behaviors at UNESCO World Heritage sites. Thanks for reading!
I love the ethics behind this work. I totally agree with your philosophy and I think is really important to respect the nature and the amazing things the world offers us. Thanks for sharing!
Thanks for reading and engaging! Please feel free to share so more people have access to this information so we can all visit UNESCO sites more mindfully.
wow i’ve never heard of tourism leakage until i read your article – it was so insightful and i appreciate that you had another piece dedicated to it too . this was such a meaningful lesson for me today!
Aww, thank you for taking the time to read and learn with me – I really appreciate it.
Thank you for this very thought provoking article. As a frequently traveling family, we have, over the years, come to appreciate many of the things you mention. We’ve first hand seen the effects of over-tourism in regions we’ve visited and have welcomed the news that some of them implemented quotas and other restrictions. But so much more needs to be done and the task is a Herculean one. I’ve learned a lot from this very well researched and well thought out article.
Thanks for reading! Yes, it is a big task while quotes can be an effective policy it requires behavioral change on our part to support these policies.
What a fantastic guide, Susanna! For me, it’s all about staying in the traveller mindset, as opposed to the tourist one. Experiencing the essence of a place always starts with building relationships with local communities and embodying respectful curiosity. After all, if you don’t respect the place and the people, why would you want to go there in the first place.
Thanks for reading, Margarita! That is a great way to put it to embrace the role of the traveler. With such wide-reaching impacts preserving world heritage will require work from all of us – together, the local, the traveler, the tourist, the government, and tourism agencies. Hopefully, more people can become aware of some of these impacts and be inspired to embrace that traveler you are talking about!
Thanks for being a voice for nature. Appreciate your love for sustainability.
Thought provoking, fabulous post as always.
It’s so sad when we end up loving places and making them worse. I used to live in Nara (which has multiple world heritage sites.) It was always sad to see how many people would rush in peek at them for half a day then leave again. The locals really needed more people to stay overnight and spend a teeny bit of time there… Travelling slowly and visiting some of the amazing things just off the main trails makes such a big difference.
It’s not just Unesco sites that this happens to. Popular hiking trails are similar – thousands of people head to the same few trails…when there are so many great other possibilities. If people just spread out and visited a variety of places, they’d be so much less harm to the surrounding nature.
It really is one of the more tragic aspects of the travel industry – we love places to death. Thanks for the insight into Nara and what it was like there. I would love to visit Japan and will make a point to stay in Nara! Everyone has a better experience if we can learn to go against the grain! Thanks for reading, Josy!
Thanks for sharing this important article. Even if we don´t carve our names on the walls, we def need to think more of the travel choices we all make. It´s crazy how places like Taj Mahal or the Great Wall of China may receive 80,000 people per day. We all need to be more active to ensure the future existence of these epic sites around the world for future generations!
A fantastic post covering some really important points for these incredibly special places. I like how you highlighted all the threats and deep dived mainly on the visitor/tourist impacts, many of which are effortless, but just require knowledge and careful consideration to make better choices!
Wow very informative article, thanks for that Susanna! Indeed inspiring travel tips not only for UNESCO sites. Slow traveling is more important to me these days, I like to stay longer in places, connect with locals or travelers and support the local economy.
That is an eye-opening post. We all think that we are contributing to sustainable tourism. But, in reality, none of us is willing to see through the mess the locals of the tourist destination have to clear every day.
I really like all the tips you shared at the end! They are the most helpful. It would be such a pity to damage these beautiful and unique places even more!
Yes, Yes, Yes to all of this! This is such a detailed article and responsible tourism is so important as the “world gets smaller.” It’s so frustrating to see instagram tourism and big tour companies exploiting places, cultures, and animals in the name of greed, simply to make a quick buck. I always try to travel with local tourism in mind. Thank you for writing about this tough issue.
Incredible article. I love to visit the UNESCO sites and I will follow these recommendations.
I’ve been to several UNESCO sites that surprised me by how poorly they were maintained. I always assume that because they have UNESCO status that they’re taken care of, but no. Thank you for these great tips!
Very interesting and eye-opening article. Such a great reminder to always be respectful and mindful of the places we are visiting. I always try to do this and strive to be more of a sustainable traveler! Very inspirational read!
This article is incredibly thorough and really helpful. Thank you so much for putting this together.
Such an important post. Mass tourism threatens to destroy that which we came to see. Thank you for all the suggestions.
It’s a shame that this post needs to be written – but thank you! People just do what they want and don’t leave the world a better place. These sites are so special – that’s why they’re designated!