Overtourism and UNESCO sites

Last episode I interviewed Professor Joseph Cheer and we discussed the term Overtourism and how countries are developing strategies to tackle overcrowding of their cities. 

One of the issues that we discussed in the last episodes is the role that Cultural Heritage sites have in influencing the amount of travellers in cities and sites, creating overtourism, so for this episode I thought it would be nice to delve into this topic and introduce the issues regarding cultural heritage and branding.

First things first, there are over 1k sites that are listed as World Heritage, 869 of them are categorised as Cultural heritage, 213 are considered natural heritage and 39 are both natural and cultural. 

For a site to be considered in this list must have ‘an outstanding universal value’ and meet the criteria for UNESCO designation, which includes requirements such as represent a human creative genius, bear a unique testimony to a cultural tradition, be directly associated with events of universal significance, among others.

These sites have been designated an universal cultural value that should be preserved for future generations. The sites could be cultural, natural or mixed. The beauty, the importance, and lately, the travellers' influence on destinations on social media, have created a huge tourism attraction for these sites. 

According to the site World Atlas some sites receive around 10 million visitors a year! Some even more! The Forbidden City in China has been known to be the most crowded site with an average of over 15 million visitors annually. 

Now imagine a site that not only is a unesco site, but is also recognised as a Wonder of the World!

In the  Unesco manual: Managing Tourism at World Heritage Sites, published in 2002, the UNESCO  World Heritage Centre acknowledged the inevitable attraction of tourists in World Heritage sites, even though the issue is way more complex in terms of management.

The truth is that world heritage sites are attractive to tourism because their value belongs universally to all humanity, (but lets' not kid ourselves, they are also attractive because of the trends in social media).

Often sites listed in the Unesco World Heritage coincide with a boost in visitation rates. However visitor rates in correlation to UNESCO designation are really hard to get because not all sites have the same reports. Which is an example of why we shouldn't think of World Heritage Sites as equal. 

However, this issue is widely acknowledged, which is why in the recent decades, UNESCO has been looking for the best way to develop management guidelines that ensures the conservation and preservation of these sites for future generations.

For this episode I interviewed Amilcar Vargas, who will explain thoroughly what does it mean to be a World Heritage Site, and we discuss how it is related to overtourism.

Listen to this episode by clicking here!

About our guest:

Amilcar Vargas (Mexico, 1980). PhD Candidate in UB. Since 2012 he lives in Barcelona and have worked in World Heritage fields as a consultant (Casa Batlló, Hospital de Sant Pau, Palau de la Música Catalana), researcher (Catalonia and Mexico's World Heritage sites) and Intern (UNESCO-HQ Paris). His PhD research is on social participation in World Heritage sites, focused in archaeological sites in Mexico. He's a member of international organisations about museums, heritage and archaeology, as International Council of Museums (ICOM), European Association of Archaeologists (EAA), Group of Heritage and Public Archaeology (GAPP) and World Archaeological Congress (WAC).

Since 2018, he is the responsible of World Heritage in Casa Batlló, a house built by architect Antoni Gaudí in 1906 in Barcelona.

You can contact Amilcar on LinkedIn and Twitter.


John Misachi (2018) ‘The World’s Most Visited UNESCO World Heritage Sites’.  World Atlas: https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/the-world-s-most-visited-unesco-world-heritage-sites.html

Kristin Mariano (2019) ‘Which wonder of the world is most popular on social media’. Travel Daily Media. https://www.traveldailymedia.com/which-wonder-of-the-world-is-most-popular-on-social-media/

The UNESCO has a cool interactive map with the list, check it out: 

UNESCO, ‘World Heritage List’: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/

UNESCO ‘Criteria for selection’: https://whc.unesco.org/en/criteria/

UNESCO (2002) World Heritage Manuals 1: Managing Tourism at World Heritage Sites. http://whc.unesco.org/uploads/activities/documents/activity-113-2.pdf

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