What’s the big deal about having a UNESCO World Heritage site?

What’s the big deal about having a UNESCO World Heritage site?

Hong Kong officials have snubbed Victoria Harbour in favor of a nunnery as a tentative World Heritage nomination, sparking debate over what makes a site worthy of inclusion
A bit flashier than Hong Kong's Chi Lin nunnery, Victoria Harbour is more deserving of a UNESCO nomination, say some locals.

Recent revelations that Hong Kong officials favored a rebuilt nunnery over the city’s famous Victoria Harbour for UNESCO World Heritage nomination have sparked indignation among heritage conservation experts.

The decision made Chi Lin nunnery the first and only site in Hong Kong to advance to China’s “tentative list.” An annual maximum of two sites on the list can be nominated for World Heritage certification. 

As Hong Kong is part of China’s national territory, the State Administration for Cultural Heritage reviews site applications. The group announced in November that the nunnery had been added to its tentative list and updated the version on its website.

However, the embattled property isn't on China’s tentative list filed with UNESCO, which is dated January 29, 2010. UNESCO requires that tentative lists are revised at least once every 10 years. 

Countries are free to revise their lists more frequently -- China has done so four times since 1996.

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What’s wrong with the nunnery?

The apparent short-listing of Chi Lin Nunnery and its accompanying garden has met with skepticism by heritage conservationists, who point out that the Buddhist complex wasn't even built until 1998.

“It was built in the Tang Dynasty style but not during the Tang Dynasty," says a veteran heritage professional in Asia who has worked with UNESCO.  (And who asked to remain anonymous out of professional concerns.)  "It was built using wood, which is traditional, but the wood comes from Canada.” 

Should China choose to nominate the nunnery for World Heritage status, it would be difficult to argue for its authenticity during the technical evaluation, she added.

Get thee to a UNESCO-listed Hong Kong nunnery? Experts say Chi Lin is nice, but unlikely to meet the world body's selection criteria. Other heritage experts doubted the nunnery would meet any of the selection criteria. 

“But it can still be done if Beijing is willing to support it and lobby ICOMOS (one of UNESCO’s advisory bodies),” says Lee Ho-Yin, director of the Architectural Conservation Program at the University of Hong Kong. 

He described the nomination process as highly political, with countries sometimes resorting to quid-pro-quo deal making when casting votes in the World Heritage Committee. 

The Advisory Antiquities Board, a government group established by a heritage protection ordinance, has been particularly vocal in its opposition. 

The nunnery “has nothing to do with the historical development of Hong Kong,” said member and historian Tim Ko, adding that the board wasn't consulted in the matter.

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Is Victoria Harbour worthy of World Heritage status?

Some heritage experts viewed Victoria Harbour, rumored to be a candidate, as more much deserving of the World Heritage accolade. 

The harbor is “more appropriate of what we think of Hong Kong -- what it is and what it means. It’s the pivotal point for why we have Hong Kong today,” says the insider. 

“If you take Chi Lin, of course, it has meaning and importance for some people,” she adds. “But when you’re talking about world heritage, you’re talking about a place of universal importance that can speak on many levels to an incredible number of people.” 

All UNESCO World Heritage sites are deemed by the World Heritage Committee to have “outstanding universal value” by fulfilling at least one of 10 selection criteria.  These range from representing a “masterpiece of human creative genius,” containing “superlative natural phenomena” or being “directly or tangibly associated with events or living traditions.” 

Currently, the list includes 962 cultural, natural or mixed cultural-natural sites across the world.

Lee believes the harbor fulfills several of the criteria, but suspected it didn't pass muster due to government concerns of “spooking” harbor front property developers. 

“China would probably favor a place that can express the Chineseness of a place, whereas Victoria Harbour is a product of the British, so you would be celebrating the colonial period,” he says. 

Others argue that the historic harbor doesn't merit World Heritage status in its current state.

“Ideologically it may meet many of the criteria ... it was really the place where East meets West,” says Bob McKercher, a professor at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University’s School of Hotel and Tourism Management. 

“(Now), there’s hardly any evidence of the go-downs and shipbuilding ... it’s really not a cultural asset anymore.” 

China travel journalist Michael Meyer dismisses the fuss over the harbor. 

“It’s a living, working environment, and doesn't need UNESCO warranting its worth any more than Meryl Streep needs an award to remind us that she's an excellent actor.”

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Why does Hong Kong want a UNESCO site?

Who needs UNESCO when you've got Bruce Lee? It’s unclear what sparked the seemingly sudden movement in Hong Kong to seek World Heritage status.

By 2010, tourism board officials had already begun discussions and the government enlisted four independent experts to provide general advice about the nomination process. The Development Bureau, which manages the application process, said Chi Lin Nunnery submitted its application the same year.

Heritage and tourism experts believe the quest for World Heritage accolades is at least partially informed by domestic politics.

“One of the carrots used to attract Macau to revert to China was the commitment that its historical center would be the number one priority for designation,” says McKercher. 

Lee says Macau’s site was bumped to the top of the list for nomination in order to boost the city’s status, demonstrating that the central government may use the World Heritage designation to exercise its political, rather than cultural, priorities.

The push for a heritage site in Hong Kong may also be an effort to be “fair and equitable so all sites don’t come from just one part of the country, but reflect the country’s diversity," says the expert who worked with UNESCO.

“China came to World Heritage late, so they’re playing catch-up” she adds, pointing out that China has had 43 properties inscribed on the World Heritage List since joining the program in 1985. 

Is UNESCO designation a good thing?

While the World Heritage initiative was intended to protect unique examples of natural and cultural heritage, it's widely acknowledged that participating countries often view the accolade as a means to draw visitors. 

However, a UNESCO stamp of approval may not necessarily lead to a boost in tourists, say tourism experts.

“The general rule of thumb is if the site was famous before it got World Heritage designation, it will become more famous," says McKercher. "If it was unknown, the designation is really not going to mean much in visitor numbers.” 

In some cases, visitor numbers have actually fallen after a site received designation, he says, particularly in remote natural zones that are subject to stringent visitor restrictions and lack the urban proliferation of tourist attractions.

Tourism not only depends on a site’s heritage value, says Sharif Shams Imon, an assistant professor of cultural heritage management at the Institute for Tourism Studies in Macau.

For example, a lack of tourist infrastructure in developing countries and perceived security risks discourage visitors.

While the impetus behind the World Heritage designation wasn't to boost tourism, it often results in a tricky struggle between conservation and commercialization.

“By recognizing a site, there’s a risk that it will become overly popular and could be damaged by its very designation,” McKercher says, describing tourism as “one of UNESCO’s dilemmas.”

UNESCO requires reporting and monitoring of site management and can rescind the designation over non-compliance.  But experts say the organization lacks the teeth for enforcement.

Meyer, who helped train UNESCO site managers in China, says designations are “collected by China the way actors chase Oscars. They are a validation of possessing ‘culture’ and an economic boon via tourism.” 

He found that World Heritage status typically leads government officials to meddle with the site, such as restricting local access or unnecessarily building or tearing down infrastructure around it to boost GDP figures.

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Does Hong Kong need a World Heritage site?

UNESCO designation or not, Victoria Harbour needs little help reinforcing its place in Hong Kong, say heritage and tourism experts. 

Classic tourist activities, such as visiting the Peak observatory, riding the fabled Star Ferry, finding Jackie Chan’s handprints on the Avenue of Stars promenade and posing with the statue of Bruce Lee ensure broad views of the famous waters that made the city a success story.

“In the case of Hong Kong, which is already a major tourist destination, having a World Heritage site might attract more tourists or a different kind of tourist -- more cultural tourists,”  Imon ventures.

Others say that aside from its obvious emblems, Hong Kong has plenty of heritage worth protecting.

“HK's cultural authorities should place value on the dai pai dong, hawkers, newsstands and other contributors to the territory's vibrant street culture that's being exterminated by government policies,” says Meyer. 

“It would better off promoting its communities -- the tightly-knit, functioning ecosystems of housing, commerce, schools, clinics and parks that make it one of the densest, and most unique, urban spaces in the world.”

What attraction would you nominate for UNESCO World Heritage status? Share you picks in the comments box below. 

Alexis Lai is a journalist at CNN.com’s Hong Kong bureau.  A nomad at heart, she has lived in seven countries and is always restless for the next adventure.  

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