The classic criticism courted by the World Heritage List is that the list predominantly exists to serve the egos of western European nations. While UNESCO’s Global Strategy has been put to good effect to redress the balance of site distribution on the list, it is still apparent that the search for world heritage need not be conducted much further than the boundaries of the European Union. That being said, two nations well beyond the confines of Europe, received their first entries on to the list this year. In Fiji, the Levuka Historical Port Town is newly inscribed, though this remains a site dominated by the influence of European settlers. No such influence is apparent in Qatar though, where the Al Zubarah Archaeological Site becomes one of three sites settled on the Persian Gulf. This sort of expansion has been targeted by UNESCO in recent years, and for additional nations beyond the old World Heritage ‘heartland’ of Western Europe, to now be represented on the list can only be a positive thing. However the ‘heartland’ has not been overlooked. While Fiji and Qatar can celebrate their first entries, Italy enjoyed their 48th and 49th inscriptions, with Mount Etna and the Medici Villas and Gardens the additions to the distended mass of World Heritage on display. Valid though these entries might be, their inclusion does nothing but reinforce the disproportionate spread of sites globally, in-spite of the efforts of the Global Strategy.
Then attention might be turned to North Korea. The inclusion of the historical complex of structures at Kaesong may well be valid under the two cited criteria, but use of the World Heritage status might be more questionable. For the promotion of a nation, having a World Heritage Site or two is no bad thing. Global brand and associated expectations of a tourism boom are motivation enough for many to pursue this status. The well known, though perhaps less well understood, political climate in Korea should encourage more probing questions to be directed at this bid. Historical narratives have played a significant role in the positioning of the contemporary regime. Does World Heritage Site status act as an endorsement for the importance of these structures in North Korea? If so, does the status then legitimise North Korean narratives claiming historical authority over the unstable region? While this is certainly not what UNESCO had in mind, it may well be the result. Should such questions come into discussions on whether or not a historical site should be considered worthy or not for inclusion on the list? In terms of weighing the historic or cultural value of a site, certainly not, and yet the World Heritage List is much more than a catalogue of exemplar cultural and natural sites, it is increasingly a means for nations to sell themselves, and perhaps their ideologies, to the world via their cultural products.
In another two years, we will almost certainly ‘celebrate’ the 1000th World Heritage Site. At that point in time, it can be guaranteed that the same questions, queries and criticisms raised above, will be the subject of ongoing debate – and we will probably still be in want of any definitive answers to the problems raised.