Congress: Stay On-Mission for Texas’ World-Class Park

San Antonio Missions in San Antonio, Texas.

Throughout the world, countries vie every year to win the coveted World Heritage status for the most naturally and culturally significant sites they have to offer. Each site must meet certain standards, but chief among them is that they be of “outstanding universal value.” The prestige of being included on the list of World Heritage Sites includes strong economic benefits for local communities. World Heritage designation often means jobs—the kind of jobs that cannot be exported. World Heritage applications are currently being prepared for sites in Ohio and Texas, Hopewell Culture National Historical Park and San Antonio Missions National Historical Park. Louisiana’s Poverty Point has already been nominated and will come up for consideration before the World Heritage Committee next year. But the fate of these sites and all other future U.S. nominations  may rest with an issue that has nothing to do with the merits of those proposals.

Globally, cultural heritage is a $1.3 trillion dollar industry. Outside the United States, World Heritage travel is big business—one Chinese businessman paid a travel agency $1.5 million dollars for a two-year trip to each of the current 962 World Heritage Sites. The Obama Administration’s National Travel and Tourism Strategy recognizes our 21 U.S. World Heritage Sites as a tool for increasing international tourism.

In the United States, many of our best-known national parks are also World Heritage Sites, including the Statue of Liberty, the Everglades, Independence Hall, the Grand Canyon, Mammoth Cave, and Yosemite. While many sites in the United States are internationally known, those with a World Heritage designation often enjoy an increase in visitation, usually connected to some form of marketing. And solid data shows a direct correlation between the World Heritage designation, economic development, and jobs.

In anticipation of the nomination of the San Antonio Missions as a World Heritage Site, Bexar County, Texas, commissioned an economic impact study. Although these historic missions are already a tourist destination, the study, done by the Harbinger Group, reveals additional significant and consequential benefits to being on the World Heritage list.  Over a ten-year period, the study found that the designation could create:

  • More than $100 million in overall economic impact,
  • More than 1,000 new jobs, and
  • More than $2 million in new hotel tax revenue.

In some caes too, World Heritage Designation did more than boost numbers, it has helped to protect some of our most valued treasures. The designation of Everglades National Park in Florida as a World Heritage Site and the park’s formal placement on the World Heritage List In Danger contributed to the establishment in 2001 of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, a 30-year, $15 billion federal and state effort to restore and protect this natural wonder and unique habitat. Among the park’s advocates, the Greater Miami Convention and Visitor’s Bureau is a major supporter of the Everglades as it knows through years of experience that World Heritage status brings tourists from around the world to South Florida. At Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, the designation has helped the National Park Service form a partnership advisory council to aid in the protection of the cave’s watershed, a vital aspect of the site’s outstanding universal value.

Only countries that are members of the World Heritage Convention can submit sites for World Heritage consideration, and paying membership dues ensures that a country is in good standing. Unfortunately, the United States is at risk of losing its good standing because it stopped paying its UNESCO dues, which include World Heritage dues in 2011. Unless Congress finds a solution to this issue, San Antonio’s ability to benefit from a potential World Heritage Site designation is in jeopardy, as are similar efforts in Louisiana and Ohio.

The United States is home to many sites worthy of World Heritage consideration. Our 21 sites are impressive, but far fewer in number than China’s 43 sites, France’s 38, and the top of the heap, Italy and Spain with 47 and 44 sites, respectively. By pursuing additional U.S. nominations, we can bring prestige and opportunity to America’s shores.

We can only do this with your support, and the time to act is now. Contact your senators and ask them to develop a workable solution that enables the United States to retain its standing within the World Heritage Convention

About the Author

Suzanne Dixon is senior director of NPCA's regional programs.