Ever since the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) created its World Heritage Sites program in 1972, countries have vied furiously to appear on the list. The designations, which recognize places for their "outstanding universal value," enhance a country's pride, draw hordes of tourists and boost business.
It takes work--documentation, planning and often politicking--to win Heritage status. But it's worth it, especially for developing countries. In the program's 37 years, the honor has been granted to 890 cultural treasures around the globe.
Make that 890, this year, minus one. On June 26, the committee stripped Dresden, Germany, of its heritage status, which it gained in 2004. Dresden's sin was building the four-lane Waldschloesschen Bridge across the Elbe Valley site, a 12-mile cultural landscape that runs along the river and takes in Ubigau Palace, Pillnitz Palace and a raft of parks and monuments that made Dresden worthy in the first place.
I'm sorry for Dresden, but UNESCO deserves applause for taking this action. Often a punching bag for malcontents who blast its bureaucracy and its ineffectiveness, the U.N. agency carries the usual baggage associated with all U.N. arms. But while it sometimes struggles to manage the Heritage program, it has few tools to ride herd on countries after their sites have been designated.
For example, while UNESCO has site-management guidelines and policies, it lacks the budget to police the management of all the sites spread throughout 150 countries on a regular basis. UNESCO has no money to help countries with preservation, the practice of which varies widely around the world, sometimes making matters worse, not better. Meanwhile, host countries often seek heritage status specifically to lure new hotels, restaurants and all the other development needed to serve an influx of tourists, but do little in the way of protection.
Until recently, UNESCO usually warned the errant governments and managers by placing over-used, under-protected or otherwise threatened sites on its so-called red list of "World Heritage in Danger." Currently, that includes about 30 places, ranging from medieval monuments in Kosovo to the Galapagos Islands to the Old City of Jerusalem. But sometimes those listings only bring more tourists afraid of missing a chance to see something in its glory. Governments hardly mind that.
A better weapon was needed, and the World Heritage Committee is starting to use it. Knocking Dresden off the list was only the second time it has chosen to delist a site. The first came just two years ago, with the ousting of the Arabian Oryx Sanctuary in Oman, which had reduced the area of land set aside for its rare antelope by 90%. (As a result, the animal's population had dropped to 64 from 450, UNESCO said.)
The old axiom says that three makes a trend, but I'm willing to give UNESCO the benefit of the doubt and count these two instances as evidence of UNESCO's newfound guts.
Last year, UNESCO warned Dresden that its status was at stake, and encouraged the city to build a tunnel instead of the bridge to alleviate its traffic problems. Yet twice voters have approved the bridge, and recent reports in German newspapers suggest that its citizens are ambivalent about losing the World Heritage Site designation.
It's disheartening to hear this from a beautiful city that was obliterated in World War II and painstakingly rebuilt, culminating just a few years ago with the reopening of the Frauenkirche. Its citizens and those of other countries have now been reminded that with the status of cultural significance comes a significant obligation.
The committee told Germany that it could present a new nomination relating to Dresden in the future, applying for a smaller site or under different criteria. Or they could take down the bridge.