China Obsessed with World Heritage

Sep 03, 2010
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Why China is spending billions to win UNESCO World Heritage status for its scenic spots.


When the UNESCO World Heritage Committee decided to include the China Danxia Landform in the World Heritage List at its 34th meeting in Brazil, it also gave rise to a wave of “heritage fever” in China. According to the Ministry of Construction, China presently has 35 items including the West Lake in Hangzhou on the waiting list for world heritage recognition. It’s even said that there are already plans for plenty more of such inclusions lined up for the next century.

It was uncovered that applying for world heritage demands surprisingly large funding as the six geologically related Danxia Landform areas have spent over 1 billion yuan to win the recognition. Lang Mountain (崀山) in Xinning County as one of the six areas spent over 400 million yuan for the application when its GDP only broke the 200-million-yuan mark in 2008. Where did the millions of yuan go? Why has the Chinese government become so extravagant when it comes to world fame?


Great Wall of China, one of the country’s many UNESCO sites

Great Wall of China, one of the country’s many UNESCO sites

GZdaily reported that it is more about economic drive than just fame. Governments take delight in talking about the myth of world heritage boosting GDP by driving tourism. Take the ancient city of Ping Yao (平遥古城) as an example. Since gaining world heritage recognition in 1997, its tour-ticket income rose from 1.25 million yuan to 75 million yuan in 2008; overall tourism income jumped from 12.5 million yuan to 670 million yuan in 2008; and tourism as a percentage of GDP also increased from 0.96% in 1997 to 13.91% in 2008. However, not all world heritage sites are as successful – Lychee County in Guizhou Province is over 200 million yuan in debt because of having chased after world heritage status.

It seems that China’s world heritage fever is backed by the norm of “economy thrives in culture’s name”. In fact, the increase in the price of tour tickets comes almost naturally following world heritage recognition. Many scenic spots such as Zhangjiajie (张家界), Xidi Hongcun (西递宏村), Jiuzhai Valley (九寨沟), Yellow Mountain (黄山) etc., all raised their ticket prices substantially.

On the other hand, Britain, as one of the most active applicants for world heritage, announced in 2008 that it would take a break in the game, citing too much maintenance costs with too little tourism benefits.

Europeans take it for granted that cultural relics and scenic spots should be protected, and tie it with protecting history and national honour. Economic benefits to them are more of a realistic consideration than the goal of applying for world heritage itself; whereas China almost draws an equal mark between world heritage recognition and tourism development. In some places, protection is only a by-product of world heritage recognition, local governments will resort to loans or raising ticket prices to make up the cost.

(Source from GZdaily and Netease.)


This post was originally published on ChinaHush in August 2010.