Value of Unesco World Heritage Site inscription | Inquirer Opinion
Commentary

Value of Unesco World Heritage Site inscription

There was quite a public outcry and outrage following reports that a resort was built in the Chocolate Hills in Bohol. This revelation prompted calls from various quarters, both public and civil society, to look into the matter, determine accountability, demolish the structure, search for other possible violations in protected heritage sites, and establish safeguards that this doesn’t happen again.

Considering past examples of important historical and cultural landmarks being blighted or even destroyed by commercial activities, the strong reaction to this case in the Chocolate Hills is a positive development. It shows that the public is becoming more conscious and appreciative of landmarks and practices that highlight and reflect our rich and diverse cultural, historical, and natural heritage. Hopefully, this sentiment will grow stronger over the years, and that the relevant authorities will react accordingly, not just on this case but also on a broader, and more consistent basis over the long term.

Protecting and preserving natural treasures such as the Chocolate Hills isn’t just about national pride, there’s economic benefit to it as well via tourism. Therefore, in further contributing to the public discussion on this issue and the lessons we should learn from it, I wish to highlight the significance of the Chocolate Hills as not only being recognized as the country’s first global geopark by Unesco, the cultural agency of the United Nations, it has also been submitted by our country to Unesco’s Tentative List as a World Heritage Site back in 2006. It has yet to be inscribed in Unesco’s World Heritage List.

So far, the Philippines only has six sites inscribed in the World Heritage List: the Baroque churches of the Philippines, the historic city of Vigan, the Cordillera rice terraces, the Mount Hamiguitan Range Wildlife Sanctuary, the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River, and the Tubbataha Reefs natural park.

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And what is the significance of this? According to Maria Gravari-Barbas, coordinator of the Unesco “Tourism, Culture, Development” program at the Sorbonne in Paris, it is called “The Unesco Effect.” This refers to the power of the Unesco brand which can skyrocket a lesser-known destination to a different level. The inscription also basically acts as a free promotion or advertising of the destination that would attract more tourists, and with more tourists, there’s more money going into the local economy. Though it may not be an exact comparison, a Unesco would be to a tourist destination what a Michelin star rating would mean for a restaurant. This is why several countries go out of their way and invest in the effort to have historical and natural landmarks, and cultural heritage inscribed in Unesco’s World Heritage List.

However, to get inscribed to and remain inscribed on that list requires passing strict criteria, a rigorous vetting process, and a responsibility to not only protect and manage the site but also to ensure its authenticity and integrity. Failure to do so or losing the characteristic that led to its inscription could result in the site being removed from the list by the World Heritage Committee.

It isn’t clear yet how the construction and operation of that resort in the Chocolate Hills will affect or jeopardize the landmark’s inscription as a Unesco World Heritage Site, or even Bohol’s Unesco recognition as a global geopark. Perhaps the situation can still be remedied, and that would depend on relevant authorities exercising political will to do what’s right and to make sure similar cases don’t happen again.

While we already have six World Heritage Sites, our country has 25 sites pending on the Tentative List, including the Chocolate Hills. Considering how we lag behind some of our Asean neighbors when it comes to tourism, getting a number of our tourist destinations that highly coveted World Heritage status would be a welcome boost to the industry and economy. With that in mind, it is our hope that relevant national and local government agencies would be more vigilant and circumspect in terms of protecting and preserving the integrity of our heritage sites.

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Moira G. Gallaga served three Philippine presidents as presidential protocol officer and was posted as a diplomat at the Philippine Consulate General in Los Angeles, and the Philippine Embassy in Washington.

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TAGS: Heritage, UNESCO, World Heritage Sites

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