What makes them so special?

You’ve heard of it, but you may not know why – or how – a UNESCO World Heritage Site gains prominence.

There is much talk of a site “listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site”. But what does that mean? Why is this important? And does that make the site special? The number of UNESCO sites around the world has exploded over the past 40 years, with another 34 sites added in 2021.

Many think that many of the UNESCO-listed sites in the United States are worth visiting, but others not so much.

The origin of the protection and designation of sites by UNESCO

It may come as a surprise, but one of the main catalysts that gave birth to UNESCO was when Egypt decided in 1954 to build the new Aswan High Dam. This would have flooded and destroyed the iconic rock-cut temples of Abu Simbel in Egypt, which today are an essential part of any visit to Egypt.


Such an act of destruction of monuments so emblematic and steeped in history would be almost unthinkable today. But the 1950s were in the early stages of conservation efforts. Fortunately, in 1959, the governments of Egypt and Sudan asked UNESCO to help them protect and save the doomed monuments.

  • Aswan High Dam: Triggered one of UNESCO’s first major conservation efforts to save priceless heritage

In 1960 UNESCO responded and the temple complexes of Abu Simbel and Philae were dismembered and moved to higher ground while hundreds of sites were excavated and recorded and thousands of objects were recovered before the land is flooded.


The project was considered a huge success and led to other efforts to save various other sites around the world – such as Venice in Italy and Mohenjo-Daro in Pakistan.

  • Countries not party to the Convention: Liechtenstein, Nauru, Somalia and Tuvalu

After that, a formal convention was created to identify and protect historic sites around the world. Almost all countries have signed the convention – only four countries have not signed the convention, Liechtenstein, Nauru, Somalia and Tuvalu.

Related: What to Know About Visiting These (Must-See) UNESCO-Listed Twin Attractions in Turkey

UNESCO and World Heritage Sites

What is a World Heritage Site? A World Heritage Site is a landmark or area that has been given legal protection by an international body administered by UNESCO. They say that:


To be inscribed on the World Heritage List, sites must have outstanding universal value and meet at least one out of ten selection criteria.

  • UNESCO: Abbreviation for “United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization”

Sites around the world are designated for their cultural, historical, scientific or other significance. The site must be a unique landmark that is geographically and historically identifiable and has some sort of cultural or physical significance.

Sites can be geographic and ecological like forests, deserts, and wilderness areas, or they can be man-made like ancient ruins or historic buildings, cities, or monuments.


The intention is that the sites be preserved for practical conservation for posterity.

To be included, the site must be of “outstanding universal value” and meet at least one of their ten criteria.

Culturally, the six criteria are (more or less) that it must represent a masterpiece of human creative genius, present an important exchange of human values, bear at least exceptional testimony to a vanished civilization, be an outstanding type of building, architectural or technological ensemble which illustrates an important stage in human history, is an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement or the purpose of life, or is directly or tangibly associated with living traditions.


There are also four natural inclusion criteria. Full criteria can be found on their website.

Related: Why You Should Check Out Hoi An UNESCO Site

UNESCO sites in figures

There are now UNESCO sites in 167 different countries – Italy is the country with the most sites on their list.

Number of UNSECO sites (July 2021):

  • Total: 1,154
  • Cultural sites: 897
  • Natural sites : 218
  • Mixed properties: 39

Today, there are more than a thousand protected sites in the world with a very high concentration in Europe. Despite its size and history, India has only 40 sites (in sixth place) while the United States has only 24 in 12th place. A full list of sites can be seen on their website.

Countries with the most sites:

  • Italy: 58
  • China: 56
  • Germany: 51
  • France: 49
  • Spain: 49

The first US sites to be listed during the 2nd session in 1979 were Mesa Verde National Park and Yellowstone National Park.

If a site is inscribed in UNESCO, it is an indicator of the perceived value and importance of this site for the world. But that doesn’t mean we’ll find it particularly interesting. Conversely, many of the most amazing sites are not (yet) registered with UNESCO.

But now many of the world’s most famous historical sites and many of the most famous natural sites are now listed in UNESCO.

Next: These are the best UNESCO World Heritage sites for beginners to visit

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