In today’s online travel world, there’s a surplus of information. In the midst of all the commercial hype and slick destination marketing, smart travellers stick to the UNESCO World Heritage List as an authoritative collection of what is truly timeless and of “outstanding universal value” on our planet.
Yet even with UNESCO’s imprimatur on sites big and small, natural biospheres and even intangible culture, the same famous mega-monuments always seem to get the lion’s share of travel love. Lesser-known but equally worthy sites still fall to the wayside as travellers rush for the obligatory photos of world icons and check off another legendary site on the do-before-I-die lists.
UNESCO recognition through its World Heritage List and time in the subsequent travel spotlight can be a mixed blessing. On the one hand, a new site gets a big status boost and protection under the UNESCO umbrella. On the other hand, an influx of tourists adds pressures and more need for protection.
One way to curb this effect is for travellers to visit alternative heritage destinations where high tourism congestion isn’t causing problems. In that spirit, below is our list of seven UNESCO World Heritage all-stars plus just-as-incredible alternatives. Why not avoid the heavy traffic and step lightly while doing your own thing? That way, the all-stars won’t get loved to death and more places will have a chance to benefit. The photos will be just as cool.
1. The All-Star: Chichén Itzá in Yucatan, Mexico
The iconic Mayan pyramid of Chichén Itzá was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1988. Then, in 2007, it was nominated for the New Seven Wonders of the World. Now that it has officially been identified as one of the honoured seven, some predict tourist visits will double within five years. As a convenient day trip from the mass-tourism destination of Cancun, Chichén Itzá, given its amazing story and stunning coastal location, is the second-most-visited ruins site in Mexico. Authorities have gradually needed to close parts of the monument to the public, no longer allowing visitors to enter interior chambers.
The Alternative: Palenque in Chiapas, Mexico
Deep in the jungle of Chiapas in southern Mexico are the ruins of the ancient Mayan city of Palenque, which was inscribed as an official UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. While it doesn’t attract the kind of mass tourism that Chichén Itzá does, thousands visit it each year. Guided tours fascinate with stories about the buildings’ precise astronomical alignment and visitors can still go into some of the ancient passages and chambers.
2. The All-Star: Great Wall of China
The Great Wall of China is one of the best-known world monuments of all time, but added to UNESCO’s World Heritage list in 1987. The Badaling section of the wall, near Beijing, attracts around 10 million visitors per year. Sadly, as a result, Geography in the News points out that “There is little concern over protection and conservation. Instead, exploitation of the site has culminated in an almost Disneyland type scene.” Booming tourism, development and inadequate protection are eating away at the Great Wall, of which as much as two-thirds are in a state of collapse.
The Alternative: Walls of Ston in Croatia
While nothing can really compare with the magnitude and might of the Great Wall of China, it is definitely not the only great wall in the world. In the historical city of Dubrovnik on the Adriatic coast of Croatia, for example, are the Walls of Ston, known as the “European Wall of China.” It dates back to the 15th century and its 5.5 kilometres of length form an irregular pentangle.
3. The All-Star: Parthenon in Athens, Greece
Lit up and glowing over Athens, Greece at night, the Parthenon is the jewel of the Acropolis, the ancient city on a hill. As the grandest remains of Greek Antiquity, the Acropolis was deemed an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. Greece is a world tourism powerhouse, welcoming more than 17.5 million visitors each year. In 2005, Athens alone received 6,088,287 tourists (each of them wanting a photo of the Parthenon without any other tourists in it).
The Alternative: Temple of Bacchus in Baalbek, Lebanon
One of five of Lebanon‘s UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Baalbek demonstrates that Greece is definitely not the only Mediterranean country with amazing ancient ruins. As UNESCO states about the ancient imperial city, “The archaeological site of Baalbek represents a religious complex of outstanding artistic value and its majestic monumental ensemble, with its exquisitely detailed stonework, is a unique artistic creation which reflects the amalgamation of Phoenician beliefs with the gods of the Greco-Roman pantheon through an amazing stylistic metamorphosis.”
4. The All-Star: Medina of Fes, Morocco
Compared to Marrakech (one of Morocco‘s most famous destinations), the city of Fes is a modest place. Yet every visitor to inland Fes is bound to wander through its medina, the walled city centre that dates back to the 8th century. By some measures, it’s the largest car-free area in the world.
The Medina of Fes has been on the official UNESCO World Heritage roster since 1981, but may soon also be added to the list of World Heritage in Danger. UNESCO cites two major threats: uncontrolled urban development due to overpopulation, and deterioration of the buildings. The governmental plan to address these issues is to safeguard everything, intervene where houses are collapsing and increase sustainable tourism.
The Alternative: Medina of Tétouan, Morocco
In the smaller and less-touristed city of Tétouan in northern Morocco, another medina has gained World Heritage status. Full of mosques, madrassas and markets, Tétouan’s ancient city centre exhibits the same definitive Moroccan culture and tradition as its better-known counterparts in Fes and other cities. While also in need of protection and conservation, Téotuan is less overwhelmed than the Medina of Fes and in a better position to absorb increasing tourism traffic.
5. The All-Star: Angkor Wat, Cambodia
A spectacular temple complex from the 12th century, Angkor Wat has been a power player for tourism in Cambodia since before its 1992 inauguration as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Thomas Holdo Hansen of AngkorHotels.org, the whl.travel local connection in Cambodia, comments that “Angkor would without doubt be on my personal Top 10 World Heritage Sites list. It’s not without good reason that this important archaeological site is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and comes high up on many people’s must-see lists. The flip side of the coin is that the recent increase in tourism potentially can bring about many negative impacts if not managed properly.”
The Alternative: Preah Vihear, Cambodia
Compared to Angkor Wat, Preah Vihear is a minor temple complex. It’s a less-likely tourism destination because of political strife. “Preah Vihear is more controversial but still a stunning archaeological site,” says Hansen. “It is situated right on the top edge of a steep cliff bordering the Sisaket Province in Thailand. After its inscription as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008, Preah Vihear has been the centre stage for some border conflicts between Thailand and Cambodia and, thus, many travellers have been discouraged from visiting.”
6. The All-Star: Machu Picchu, Peru
The year 2011was special for South America’s favourite pre-Colombian archaeological site of Machu Picchu. It marked 100 years since Hiram Bingham, a Yale University historian, arrived at the majestic high-elevation Incan citadel and announced its existence to the rest of the world. Machu Picchu was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983. Since then, UNESCO has had to fight many battles to protect it from private interests and overdevelopment, including the implementation of a daily visitor limit. Still, safe-keepers fear irreparable damage if poor administration continues in the face of surging tourism.
The Alternative: Wiñay Wayna, Peru
Also along the Inca Trail in the Sacred Valley of Peru where Machu Picchu is found, Wiñay Wayna is a minor Incan ruins site that is often considered a mere “stop in the road” on the way to Machu Picchu. While it’s true that it can’t match Machu Picchu’s scale and grandeur, Wiñay Wayna charms and impresses. With staircases and fountain structures connecting the layers of terrace, it is a perfect example of the hillside architecture traditional to the Incas.
7. The All-Star: Pyramids of Giza, Egypt
The Pyramids of Giza were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. They are, of course, Egypt‘s most visited attraction. In 1999, the largest of the three pyramids was reopened after a year of restoration work. The project’s goal was to undo some of the damage caused by long-term exposure to mass tourism. According to the BBC, “humidity levels in the tunnels and chambers inside had reached 80 percent because of the sheer volume of people going in,” which caused condensation and a build-up of salt. Since then, a cap of 300 visitors per day has been set on pyramid access.
The Alternative: Pyramids of Gebel Barkal, Sudan
The Pyramids of Gebel Barkal are part of the larger Gebel Barkal mountain site, which was approved as a UNESCO cultural World Heritage Site in 2003. It is one of only two in the country of Sudan. The Kushitic pyramids themselves were built as a royal cemetery in the 3rd century, which makes them only half as old as and very modest in size compared to the likes of the Great Pyramids of neighbouring Egypt. Travel to Sudan is complicated at the moment, but pieces of cultural heritage like this already under UNESCO protection hold promise for a tourism future.