What Does It Mean If Somewhere Is UNESCO-Recognized?

Very often in my articles, blog posts and other writing about great travel destinations, I’ll mention if a site or region is on the UNESCO list. But, when talking to a few other wanderers recently, I realized that, though the acronym UNESCO is famous, not everyone understands what it represents or why the places on the list are chosen.

Here’s a quick explanation. Hopefully it will help you in planning your next trips!

Sun rises over Angkor Wat, one of Cambodia’s UNESCO-listed sites. Photo by Beth Green.

The acronym UNESCO stands for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Though travelers will chiefly recognize the agency’s work in the preservation and recognition of important cultural and natural sites around the world, it does a lot more than that. According to its website it also works to promote wide access to education, especially in less developed areas; to facilitate scientific research and collaboration; and to protect freedom of expression.

The medina in Marrakech is one of Morocco’s UNESCO-listed sites. Photo by Dan Pelka.

When the literature about a site that you visit while traveling says that it is UNESCO recognized, or that it’s on the UNESCO World Heritage List, it means that it’s been officially recognized by the World Heritage Committee, a group within UNESCO. In 1972 and 2003, UNESCO members adopted two conventions (the World Heritage Convention and the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage) and, meanwhile, began making a list of places that represent “outstanding universal value.”

The historic center of Macau is listed by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee. Photo by Beth Green

As of the date of writing the UNESCO World Heritage List encompasses 981 sites. You can get the list, and a handy interactive map, here.

To be voted onto the list (by the World Heritage Committee, which has 21 members who serve up to six-year terms; members are chosen from the countries that have signed the World Heritage Convention) a site has to be nominated and evaluated. It also has to meet one of 10 criteria (adapted from

  1. Be a masterpiece of creative genius
  2. Show “an important interchange of human values” over time in architecture or design.
  3. Bear unique testimony to a living or extinct culture
  4. Be an “outstanding” example of a building or landscape that “illustrates a significant stage in human history”
  5. Be an “outstanding” example of how humans have used land or sea that also represents their culture or how humans have interacted with a changing environment
  6. Be related to events, traditions, ideas, beliefs or art that has universal significance
  7. Have natural phenomena or natural beauty and “aesthetic importance”
  8. Represent stages in the Earth’s history, especially geologically
  9. Represent ongoing biological or ecological processes in the evolution and development of its environment
  10. Contain habitats for conserving natural biodiversity, especially for threatened species


The Statue of Liberty is one of the United States’ UNESCO-listed sites. Photo by Beth Green

The World Heritage Committe often adds new sites; the list is not complete. Some of the places that are currently on the list are ones you can rattle off at the top of your head, ones that get large numbers of tourists visiting throughout the year: The Statue of Liberty, the Taj Mahal, the Grand Canyon, the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

Others are ones that you may have heard or seen of in a travel magazine, or on a blog like this, but which are less frequently visited: Shark Bay, Western Australia; the Major Mining Sites of Wallonia, Belgium; Rapa Nui National Park, Chile; the Mount Nimba Strict Nature Reserve, Guinea.

You’ve heard of this one–the Great Wall of China is on the UNESCO Heritage List. Photo by Beth Green

And, yet others, are ones that are small, in places that are not known for tourism. These are arguably the most fascinating, and the ones that the list was created for–without gaining recognition, these sites are in danger of being forgotten and a piece of our heritage is in danger of being lost.

Many of the listings in this category are listed becasue of the uniqueness or diversity of the environment: Phoenix Islands Protected Area, Kiribati; the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, Mexico, Tubbataha Reefs Natual Park, Philippines.

Which UNESCO sites have you visited?

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Hi! I’m Beth. Thanks for visiting Everyday Travel Stories, a site that celebrates all of the glorious travel opportunities on our planet.

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