There have also been notable successes: the International Council on Mining & Metals, a group of the world's 15 largest mining companies, and Royal Dutch/Shell, the oil company, pledged last year to stop exploration on World Heritage sites. The European Space Agency has also signed an accord with UNESCO to use its satellites to monitor sites and alert authorities to any land use changes that might jeopardize cultural or natural riches.
Last year's re-entry into UNESCO by the United States, 19 years after it left to protest corrupt management practices and an anti-American bias, is sure to lead to more additions to the list. Most of the 20 U.S. sites currently included are natural settings such as Yellowstone National Park; just a handful are cultural monuments—Independence Hall in Philadelphia; Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's home in Virginia; the recently re-opened Statue of Liberty.
Even after the United States quit UNESCO, it continued to support the World Heritage program. But it has been several years since any new American sites have been inscribed. Now the National Park Service, which oversees American nominations, is preparing a new roll of potential sites. "It's time to look at the important contributions of the United States in terms of architecture, landscape design, and infrastructure," says Bandarin, who suggests that places like the Chicago Loop, New York City's Central Park, and the Empire State Building are ripe for inscription.
Indeed, with or without U.S. participation, the list continues to grow every year, adding complex new challenges for the organization, whose oversight duties are burgeoning. In July, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee voted to recognize 34 new sites. According to Bandarin, the agency does its best to curb any damage to sites by tourism or other commercial interests. But just before the most recent additions, the Economist suggested that "the list is too long and too ambitious." And a leading German newspaper, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, warned that the World Heritage List risks being transformed from "Noah's Ark into a cruise liner for package tourists," and, the paper wrote, "is threatened by an inflationary expansion that in the end could eliminate all individuality and hinder protection."
MICHAEL Z. WISE is a contributing editor for Travel + Leisure.