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As Global Heritage Sites Vanish, Developing Countries Lose Key Economic Assets

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Ayutthaya in Thailand. Mirador in Guatemala. Most people outside of these countries have not heard of either, and future generations will never know of or experience these historical treasures if we do not work to save them.

Both are "global heritage" sites, meaning they are of great cultural value to their own countries and to civilization collectively. That value is more than just a link to the past -- heritage sites offer an overlooked key to revitalizing poorer nations. But explosive growth in tourism and unchecked development in developing countries is putting heritage sites under such severe stress that experts fear widespread, irreplaceable losses in the next 10-20 years. We learned this in the creation of a new report, Saving Our Vanishing Heritage, which reviewed over 500 heritage sites. We found that simultaneous and accelerating man-made threats are putting many fragile sites in imminent danger. National treasures are being lost and damaged by illegal encroachment, construction, poor management, unsustainable tourism, looting and conflict.

At the same time, natural disasters are washing away or leveling one-of-a-kind sites like Ayutthaya (once one of Southeast Asia's most advanced civilizations). While we cannot stop an earthquake, we can stop the tsunami of tourists swarming over easily damaged archaeological sites.

While seemingly benign, tens of thousands of tourists are climbing over fragile archaeological sites (from Angkor to Machu Picchu), gradually wearing them down. The unrelenting rush for hotel development is strangling once-sacred ancient cities and sites like Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Casinos and high-rise hotels are replacing ancient sanctuaries and towns.

Tim Williams, professor of archaeology at the University College of London - and member of the Editorial Committee for Vanishing - has said, "Our archaeological work is facing extreme pressures from encroaching development or uncontrolled tourism. Few developing countries have the capabilities or training to manage their major heritage treasures. We are seeing major losses at sites that would be highly protected in Europe or North America." In fact, only 76 of the world's most significant sites - all in poor countries - have international recognition by UNESCO, the same as Italy and Spain combined.

Until now, this has largely been a silent crisis, happening in far-flung corners of the world. What is unfolding in many places has not been seen since the World Wars.

Why does it matter? Aside from the permanent lost to historical treasures, these sites are also promising economic engines for poor countries which can bring jobs, income and feed tens of thousands. In fact, Vanishing estimates that, by 2025, heritage sites could garner more than $100 billion a year for poor countries. Much of the solution lies in having global funding and expertise focused on our most significant and endangered sites. Timely intervention is critical.

Global monitoring is a must. Unlike climate change, or loss of tropical rainforests or animal species - which each have thousands of scientific reports and satellite systems - baseline data is not being collected, and there is no "agency." Our report calls for the creation of a new early-warning and threats monitoring system, Global Heritage Network (GHN), to fill the gaping hole in knowledge about conservation in sites across the developing world. Legal boundaries for each site's protected areas are being mapped, and illegal encroachment and other threats are being geographically identified and communicated to the responsible governments.

Vanishing also recommends establishing a Global Fund for Heritage in developing countries, which can provide targeted emergency support for threats, international experts, and conservation planning and training. And by increasing private-sector funding and leadership in preservation, we can multiple critical financial and human resources. It is impossible to regenerate unique and timeless heritage sites once they are gone. And with them will disappear the opportunity for economic development in these poor countries.

I want future generations to know the names of Mirador and Ayutthaya, among others. Not just for their value to tourists but also as the sparks that ignited positive, sustainable development for their regions.