News that Iwate Prefecture’s historic Hiraizumi area and the Ogasawara Islands would be added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List last June lifted the spirits of residents in the Tohoku region after the March 11 quake-tsunami trauma.
Although Hiraizumi, like other towns in the area, saw tourism plunge after the catastrophe, visitors have been flooding the area ever since, tripling from 98,067 in May to 292,640 in August, town authorities say.
Mount Fuji and Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, are the next two sites Japan will submit for World Heritage recognition in 2013.
Here are some questions and answers about the UNESCO program:
When did UNESCO’s World Heritage program begin?
The first 12 sites, including the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador and Yellowstone National Park in the United States, were inscribed to the World Heritage List in 1978, after the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization adopted the World Heritage Convention in 1972 to protect and preserve cultural and natural sites of outstanding universal value.
The convention established its World Heritage Committee, a rotating group of 21 nations, which meet annually to decide on candidates nominated by UNESCO’s 188 member countries.
Japan signed the convention in 1992, and its first four sites — Buddhist monuments near Horyuji Temple in Nara, Himeji Castle in Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture, the Shirakami Mountain Range in Akita and Aomori prefectures, and Kagoshima’s Yakushima Island — were added to the World Heritage List the following year.
How many World Heritage sites are there worldwide?
Over 30 years since the first sites were inscribed in 1978, the list has reached 936 sites in 153 countries, including 725 cultural heritage sites, 183 natural heritage sites and 28 sites with mixed properties.
As the famed list is now approaching 1,000 sites, there have been calls to focus less on expansion and more on conservation of the designated sites. Some argue that expanding the list will dilute the meaning of World Heritage.
Thus the committee’s advisory body has engaged in stricter preliminary inspections of the candidate sites, experts say.
Japan is home to 16 World Heritage sites, including the historic villages of Shirakawa-go in Gifu Prefecture and Gokayama in Toyama Prefecture, and the Shiretoko Peninsula in Hokkaido.
How does the listing process work?
Sites can be only be nominated by the country in which they exist.
Before a country nominates a site, it must submit a tentative list to the World Heritage Committee. That list names the sites it plans to recommend over the next five to 10 years, UNESCO’s website says.
From the list, a country can nominate up to two sites per year to the committee.
In Japan’s case, there are still 10 sites — excluding Mount Fuji and Kamakura — on its tentative list waiting to be nominated.
Before the committee makes its decisions, its advisory bodies — the International Council on Monuments and Sites (for cultural heritage) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (for natural heritage) — visit and evaluate the proposed sites.
Based on their reports, the World Heritage Committee makes a final judgement at its annual meeting.
Once a property is designated, the host government must submit a monitoring report about the site to the committee every six years.
Who draws up the nomination documents in Japan?
Local governments are supposed to generate the applications, but because most don’t have experts on historical or environmental sites, they ask outside experts to make the documents for them, experts say.
“The documents are voluminous. They need to include drawings of the proposed site, details about its components and many other data. In the case of Mount Fuji, it’s about 300 pages,” Haruhisa Furuta, head of The Sekaiisan Research Institute, a Hiroshima-based think tank on World Heritage issues, told The Japan Times.
Translating the documents poses another hurdle, he said.
“They must be translated into English or French. Literal translations are not good,” Furuta said, adding that it is very difficult to correctly express a site’s cultural background in another language.
It costs about ¥10 million to complete the documents, he added.
What advantage is there in winning World Heritage status?
Heritage status is a huge advertising draw and a lure for tourists, experts say.
“It is very difficult to show in figures the economic effects of being named a World Heritage site. . . . But the number of visitors will certainly increase, and this has a multiplier effect, when considering accommodations, souvenir shops and job creation,” Furuta said.
For example, after the Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine in Shimane Prefecture made the World Heritage List in 2007, annual tourism doubled within two years from 400,000 in 2006 to over 813,200 in 2008, according to Oda City Hall.
“Other positive effects include the attitudes of locals. Many develop a greater attachment to their hometowns and become prouder,” Furuta said.
What’s the downside?
Ironically, the biggest threats to the Japanese sites are posed by the environmental and property damage being caused by the resulting hordes of tourists.
After the villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama were inducted in 1995, tourism more than doubled from around 600,000 a year to 1.4 to 1.5 million, according to data collected by Shirakawa.
Due to the increase, buses and cars began to crowd the local roads, altering the quiet lives of the residents.
Some also claim the increase in crowds, souvenir shops and restaurants ruined the tranquility of the area further.
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