World Heritage Sites
A global list of internationally recognised sites of outstanding universal value
Only shows natural and mixed sites, as held in the World Database on Protected Areas.
World Heritage Sites are places on earth that are of Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) to humanity and therefore, have been inscribed on the World Heritage List to be protected for future generations. Places as diverse and unique as the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, Galapagos Islands in Ecuador and the Grand Canyon in the USA are examples of places inscribed on the World Heritage List. The World Heritage Convention, 1which has been ratified by 187 countries, was adopted by United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) General Conference in 1972, and came into force in 1975, for the identification, protection, conservation, presentation and transmission to future generations of the world cultural and natural heritage. Under this international legal instrument, sites are nominated for inclusion on the World Heritage List, either for their natural or cultural values, or a mixture of the two. The secretariat to the World Heritage Convention is the UNESCO World Heritage Centre, whilst three organisations: International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) act as its advisory bodies. The advisory body on natural heritage is IUCN.
The 1972 UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, generally known as the World Heritage Convention.
Year of creation
Global system of 911 terrestrial and marine sites; 704 cultural, 180 natural and 27 mixed properties (recognised for both cultural and natural values) in 151 countries (Year: 2010).2
The criteria for a site to be be included on the World Heritage List is determined by its Outstanding Universal Value (OUV). OUV is achieved when a site both i) contains necessary attributes which will contribute to meeting at least one at least one out of the ten inscription criteria, and ii) meets conditions of integrity (and a condition of authenticity in relation to cultural sites). The condition of integrity is a measure of the wholeness and intactness of the site’s heritage and its attributes that is established when an adequate and long term protection and management system are in place to ensure its safeguarding. Six inscription criteria relate to cultural heritage (i-vi) and four relate to natural heritage (vii-x). These are given below:1
i.Represent a masterpiece of human creative genius;
ii. Exhibit an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning or landscape design;
iii. Bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared;
iv. Be an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates (a) significant stage(s) in human history;
v. Be an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement, land-use, or sea-use which is representative of a culture (or cultures), or human interaction with the environment especially when it has become vulnerable under the impact of irreversible change;
vi. Be directly or tangibly associated with events or living traditions, with ideas, or with beliefs, with artistic and literary works of outstanding universal significance;
vii. Contain superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance;
viii. Be outstanding examples representing major stages of earth’s history, including the record of life, significant on-going geological processes in the development of landforms, or significant geomorphic or physiographic features;
ix. Be outstanding examples representing significant on-going ecological and biological processes in the evolution and development of terrestrial, fresh water, coastal and marine ecosystems and communities of plants and animals;
x. Contain the most important and significant natural habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity, including those containing threatened species of outstanding universal value from the point of view of science or conservation.
The protection and conservation of World Heritage Sites (WHS) falls under the duty of state parties of the convention who, when nominating a site, must demonstrate appropriate policy, legal, scientific, technical, administrative and financial measures are in place or proposed to protect the site. In addition to deciding on listing of World Heritage Sites, the intergovernmental , the main body in charge of the implementation of the Convention carries out regular monitoring of listed World Heritage Sites through a range of different processes, and also may provide international assistance under the .
The Committee is also responsible for the ‘List of World Heritage in Danger’- a list of World Heritage properties threatened by serious or specific dangers, such as the threat of disappearance caused by accelerated deterioration, large-scale public or private projects or rapid urban or tourist development projects.2 The Committee may inscribe a site onto the List of World Heritage in Danger when it considers that focused attention on addressing pressing conservation matters is required.
From a business perspective, it is incumbent on the proponent of projects within, or near World Heritage Sites to demonstrate that the site’s OUV will not be negatively affected by the project. The processes of the Committee are specified in the ‘Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention’3, and extensive information is provided on the website of the UNESCO World Heritage Centre. States are also requested to notify the Committee, through the Secretariat, of their intention to undertake or to authorize major restorations or new constructions which may affect the outstanding universal value of the property. Notice is requested to be given as soon as possible (for instance, before drafting basic documents for specific projects) and before making any decisions that would be difficult to reverse; so that the Committee may assist in seeking appropriate solutions to ensure that the outstanding universal value of the property is fully preserved.
Legal and compliance – Legal recognition and protection by national government is a definite requisite for these sites. World Heritage Sites also have direct recognition in international law that states that activities must not negatively affect sites’ Outstanding Universal Value. As such, the World Heritage Committee has adopted a policy, through precedent setting, for zero tolerance of mining and hydrocarbon exploration and exploitation within World Heritage Sites. World Heritage Sites have a high profile both in terms of the attention they are given through the World Heritage Convention by the international community, and through the monitoring processes operated by UNESCO, IUCN and the cultural advisory bodies to the Convention. These sites also attract considerable attention from the public locally and internationally and threats to them normally attract significant publicity. Commitments to protect and conserve World Heritage Sites have been made by a number of industry lead bodies, such as Shell, and the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM), who observe commitments to not mine or conduct extractive activities within World Heritage Sites.
As protected areas under international law, these areas are also referred to in the safeguard standards of a number of multilateral finance institutions, including the International Finance Corporation4, the European Investment Bank5, the Asian Development Bank6, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development7, and the Inter-American Development Bank8. Such standards often require no project activities are acceptable within these areas unless they do not adversely impact the area and are compatible with the conservation aims of the protected area. In cases where projects are eligible for funding, additional requirements often apply, including consultation with and informed consent by stakeholders and managers, as well as the implementation of additional programs to enhance the conservation aims of the protected area. These standards refer to those that have been designated as well as areas officially proposed for protection.
In addition, World Heritage Sites are specifically referred to in a number of certification schemes including the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuel9 and the Responsible Jewellery Council10 that declare these sites as no-go areas. The wider list of standards and certification schemes that refer to protected areas also apply to these sites (see information on IUCN protected area categories for more information).
Biodiversity – World Heritage Sites that are listed under criteria ix and x (see above) are expressly designated for their biodiversity values, and thus can be expected to have high levels of biodiversity, and be identified as global conservation priorities. World Heritage Sites identified under other criteria (including the six cultural criteria) though not identified as being of OUV for biodiversity, may nevertheless be areas of high biodiversity, with significance at regional, national and/or local levels. The criteria contain aspects of both irreplaceability and vulnerability of species and habitats and sites inscribed for the conservation of biodiversity are strictly monitored to ensure continued integrity of these Outstanding Universal Values. As site-scale areas of biodiversity importance, World Heritage Sites are therefore of high relevance for business in terms of avoiding risk from biodiversity loss and identifying opportunity associated with biodiversity conservation.
Socio-cultural – WHS can be of significant global, national and local socio-cultural importance, based on the cultural inscription criteria i-vi. Many of these sites are therefore significant for local livelihoods and traditional practices and rights of the local people, along with those that hold global cultural value. Sites inscribed under these OUVs are strictly monitored to ensure continued integrity and authenticity of these values.
- Protected Planet is a tool for visualizing, mapping and contributing to information on protected areas. This includes information on World Heritage Sites. Protected Planet brings together spatial data, descriptive information and images from the World Database on Protected Areas, the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF), WikipediaTM, PanaramioTM, FlickrTM, and Google MapsTM.
- The Integrated Biodiversity Assessment Tool (IBAT) for business provides a visualisation and GIS download tool for World Heritage Sites.
- UNESCO (1972). Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, Paris.
- The full list of WHS, including the list of World Heritage in Danger are available on the UNESCO World Heritage Centre official website
- The Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention (2008).
- IFC (2006) Performance Standard 6: Biodiversity Conservation and Sustainable Natural Resource Management. International Finance Corporation, Washington, DC.
- EIB (2009) Statement of Environmental and Social Principles and Standards. European Investment Bank, Luxembourg.
- ADB (2009) Safeguard Policy Statement. Asian Development Bank, Manila.
- EBRD (2008) Environmental and Social Policy. European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, London.
- IDB (2006) Environment and Safeguards Compliance Policy. Inter-American Development Bank , Washington, DC.
- RSB. (2009) Annex to the Guidelines for Environmental and Social Impact Assessment, Stakeholder Mapping and Community Consultation Specific to the Biofuels Sector- Ecosystem and Conservation Specialist. Version 1.0. Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels, Lausanne.
- RJC. (2009) Responsible Jewellery Council Standards Guidance. The Responsible Jewellery Council. London.
Dowload this factsheet as a PDF
If you see any errors or have any questions or suggestions on what is shown on this page, please email them to email@example.com so that we can correct or extend the information provided