Much is made of a site being "UNESCO World Heritage Listed." But what does that mean? Why does it matter? And does it make the site special? The number of UNESCO sites around the world has exploded over the last 40 or so years with another 34 sites having been added in 2021.

Many feel that a lot of the UNESCO-listed sites in the United States are worth seeing, but others not so much.

The Origin of UNESCO's Protection and Designation of Sites

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

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Such an act of destroying monuments so iconic and with so much history would be nigh unthinkable today. But the 1950s were in the earlier stages of conservation efforts. Fortunately, in 1959 the governments of Egypt and Sudan requested UNESCO to help them protect and rescue the doomed monuments.

  • Aswan High Dam: Triggered One of The First Major Conservation Efforts By UNESCO 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 was inundated.

The project was deemed a massive success and led to other efforts to safeguard various other sites around the world - like Venice in Italy, and the Mohenjo-Daro in Pakistan.

  • Countries Not Part Of The Convention: Liechtenstein, Nauru, Somalia, and Tuvalu

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

Related: What To Know About Visiting These Twin (Must-See) UNESCO Listed 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 that's administered by UNESCO. They say that:

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

  • UNESCO: Short For "United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization"

Sites around the world are designated for having 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.

The sites can be geographic and ecological like forests, deserts, and wilderness areas, or they can be man-made like ancient ruins or historical 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, exhibit an important interchange of human values, bear at least exceptional testimony to a civilization that has disappeared, be of an outstanding type of buildings, architectural, or technological ensemble that illustrates a significant stage of human history, be an outstanding example of traditional human settlement or why of life, or be directly or tangibly associated with living traditions.

There are also four criteria for natural inclusion. The full criteria can be found on their website.

Related: Why You Should Experience The UNESCO Site Of Hoi An

UNESCO Sites By the Numbers

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 over a thousand protected sites around the world with a very large concentration being in Europe. Despite its size and history, India only has 40 sites (at sixth place) while the United States has only 24 at 12th place. One can see a full list of sites on their website.

Countries With The Most Sites:

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

The first American sites to be inscribed in the 2nd session in 1979 were  Mesa Verde National Park and Yellowstone National Park.

If a site is UNESCO inscribed it is an indicator of the perceived value and importance of that site to the world. But that doesn't mean that one will find it particularly interesting. Conversely, many of the sites one will find the most amazing are not (yet) UNESCO inscribed.

But now many of the most famous historical sites around the world and many of the most famous natural landmarks are now UNESCO inscribed.

Next: These Are The Best UNESCO World Heritage Sites To Visit For First-Timers