8 Under-the-Radar UNESCO World Heritage Sites

From natural wonders to historical ruins, these overtourism alternatives
will make you look like a star to clients

The Old City of Acre in Israel, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is steadily gaining more visitors. © 2018 Getty Images

The Old City of Acre in Israel, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is steadily gaining more visitors. © 2018 Getty Images

In high school, there are the popular kids. In travel, there are the UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Indeed, some heritage locations are such obvious bucket-list items that the UNESCO World Heritage Centre might not seem like a source for under-the-radar travel knowledge. But in the shadow of the Great Wall of China and under the weight of the Galapagos Islands are lesser-known marvels that are also physically and culturally significant and, according to UNESCO, “of outstanding value to humanity.”

Since the first class of 12 sites were inscribed in 1978, the UNESCO World Heritage list has grown to 1,092 natural, cultural and mixed properties in 167 countries. This year, 19 new sites were inducted during the World Heritage Committee meeting in July.

To be considered natural or cultural heritage, a site must meet at least one of 10 selection criteria. The eight highlighted locations in this story represent, together, each of UNESCO’s selection criteria. They should also serve as inspiration to you and your clients — particularly those who have already ogled at the Taj Mahal, trekked to Machu Picchu and skied the Dolomites.

Opting for a lesser-known UNESCO World Heritage Site is also the sustainable choice: It can help with overtourism symptoms such as crowding and destination deterioration.

“It’s a common misconception that once a location becomes a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is automatically protected and preserved for future generations,” said Kelley Louise, executive director of Impact Travel Alliance, a nonprofit community for impact-focused travel professionals. “But, in reality, nearly half of UNESCO sites don’t have a tourism management plan in place — a dilemma because as a site’s popularity increases, its chance at preservation actually decreases.

Most challenges of popular UNESCO sites, including overcrowding, queuing and congestion, are associated with visitor management and negatively affect residents and visitors alike, says Peter DeBrine, senior project officer for the UNESCO World Heritage Centre.

“The construction of tourism infrastructure, such as accommodations, parking facilities, roads and trails, is also increasingly becoming a challenge for World Heritage properties,” DeBrine said. “Currently, 50 State of Conservation reports refer to problems associated with visitor management and the construction of tourism infrastructure. It is indicating an alarming trend.”

While DeBrine and others at the UNESCO World Heritage Centre are currently working on a tool for visitor and tourism management at UNESCO sites, much of the burden lies with the travel industry, Louise says.

“We are responsible for building out systems that ensure destinations are protected for locals and future generations to enjoy,” she said. “Travelers aren’t visiting UNESCO World Heritage sites because they want to destroy them; rather, they are often unaware of how their actions can have long-term, negative impacts. Before a tourist even sets foot in a destination, travel agents and the rest of the industry play an important role in helping consumers understand how they can make conscious, sustainable decisions.”

Although there are ways to lessen the impact of travel to popular heritage sites — such as visiting during the off-season, booking with a sustainable tour operator and supporting surrounding communities — there’s a strong case for choosing under-the-radar locations instead. More people spread across more destinations helps maintain resources and shares the earnings of tourism with more communities.

“It’s a common misconception that once a location becomes a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is automatically protected and preserved for future generations.”
Kelley Louise, executive director of Impact Travel Alliance

And while a UNESCO designation is intended to spark preservation efforts and support local communities, there’s no denying that it is a huge selling point — and can serve as a gateway to lesser-known places.

“UNESCO understands that World Heritage designation can be an effective marketing tool for tourism,” DeBrine said. “World Heritage sells.”


Maloti-Drakensberg Park is considered a mixed UNESCO site due its dual cultural and natural significance. © 2018 Durban Tourism

Maloti-Drakensberg Park is considered a mixed UNESCO site due its dual cultural and natural significance. © 2018 Durban Tourism

Take, for example, Regent Seven Seas Cruises’ 117-night 2021 World Cruise. Marketing materials emphasize that the journey stops at 61 ports and 56 UNESCO World Heritage sites.

“Highlighting the UNESCO World Heritage sites demonstrates the credibility of the itinerary” said Joseph Chabus, a spokesperson for Regent. “A UNESCO World Heritage Site has an inherent added value that sparks interest.”

This year, Seabourn Cruise Line will take guests to more than 180 UNESCO sites as part of its $1 million cruise partnership with UNESCO World Heritage Centre.

“The goal of the partnership is to help promote sustainable tourism at UNESCO World Heritage properties around the world, which is supported by a small donation added to the prices of select shore excursions visiting UNESCO sites,” said Brian Badura, director of global public relations and strategic initiatives for Seabourn.

As part of the partnership, Seabourn guests also receive exclusive or enhanced access to select World Heritage sites around the world. Additionally, UNESCO experts are a regular part of enrichment lectures offered on every Seabourn itinerary.

“In most cases, there is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that Seabourn visits that can help travel professionals suggest new and exciting destinations to clients,” Badura said.

Indeed, proposing new places to travelers is good for the world and the future of travel — but it’s also good for business.

“Savvy travel agents can set their business apart from competitors by offering travelers booking options that are not only more sustainable, but are also more unique,” Louise said. “While the bucket-list UNESCO World Heritage sites are certainly worth a visit, there are a number of lesser-known destinations that tout their own bragging rights.”

We agree: Following are eight UNESCO sites that might be completely new to you and your clients, making them perfect suggestions for those seeking out alternatives to popular sites. Fortunately, most of these destinations are tied to a recent tourism development, making them more accessible to visit than ever before. Give the geysers at Yellowstone National Park and the canals of Venice, Italy, a break: Take a chance on fellow sites deemed important enough to protect and pass on to the next generation.

Erbil Citadel, located in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, was inscribed in 2014. © 2018 Getty Images

Erbil Citadel, located in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, was inscribed in 2014. © 2018 Getty Images

According to UNESCO, Erbil Citadel "comprises some fine examples of residential buildings dating back to the 19th to 20th centuries, and, to a lesser degree, to the 18th century." © 2018 Balin Zrar

According to UNESCO, Erbil Citadel "comprises some fine examples of residential buildings dating back to the 19th to 20th centuries, and, to a lesser degree, to the 18th century." © 2018 Balin Zrar

Mountain Travel Sobek recently launched a tour of Iraqi Kurdistan that includes a visit to Erbil Citadel. © 2018 Balin Zrar

Mountain Travel Sobek recently launched a tour of Iraqi Kurdistan that includes a visit to Erbil Citadel. © 2018 Balin Zrar

Archaeological Site Of Troy, Turkey

Criteria: II, III, VI

Some World Heritage sites are not only tied to events in history — they’ve been immortalized by works of art and continue to influence artists in modern times. This is the case of the Archaeological Site of Troy in Canakkale, Turkey: The siege of Troy by Greek warriors in the 12th or 13th century B.C. was captured by Homer in his epic poem “The Iliad.” Considered one of the oldest pieces of Western literature, the poem has inspired countless works of art, from Virgil’s “The Aeneid” to the 2004 blockbuster film “Troy” starring Brad Pitt as Achilles and Diane Kruger as Helen.

But while “The Iliad” is well-known, the believed destination of ancient Troy has still managed to fly somewhat under the radar (not helped by Turkey’s ongoing political tensions and safety issues). To drum up more visitors, and to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the site’s UNESCO listing, The Ministry of Culture and Tourism of Turkey has declared 2018 the “Year of Troy.” A new museum at the foot of the site, scheduled to open this fall, will chronicle more than 5,000 years of history over the course of 150 new exhibits. A schedule of events and plans to establish two cultural trekking routes will complement the site’s high-quality and ongoing excavations, credited with painting an illuminating picture of “the first contact between the civilizations of Anatolia and the burgeoning Mediterranean world.”


Chiribiquete National Park - “The Maloca of the Jaguar,” Colombia

Criteria: III, IX, X

This was a big year for conservation in Colombia. The country’s Chiribiquete National Park was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was expanded to 17,000 square miles, making it the largest protected tropical rainforest park in the world. Thousands of species dwell in the site, which is located in the heart of the Colombian Amazon.

The only endemic species here, the Chiribiquete emerald hummingbird, shares the skies with blue and yellow macaws, while giant anteaters, jaguars, lowland tapirs and pumas can be found wandering among the park’s vibrant plant life. Adding further intrigue are unique landforms, including caves, labyrinths, arches and 13 kinds of tepuis.

The Native American word for tabletop rock formations, tepuis are home to one of the world’s largest and oldest concentrations of art in the world. Sixty rock shelters featuring more than 75,000 paintings depict life and mythologies from as far back as 20,000 years ago. UNESCO believes that uncontacted indigenous groups still visit the archaeological sites.

So, where do we sign up? Even though the park is roughly the size of Denmark, it is totally restricted to tourism — at the moment. Hernan Acevedo, country manager for tour operator Pure! Colombia, says that plans are in the works for flightseeing to resume in October. “The park has always been off-limits,” Acevedo said. “Before, the main reason was the presence of guerrillas, and now, the reason is conservation. It is one of the most unexplored areas in the world.”


Erbil Citadel, Iraqi Kurdistan

Criteria: IV

Most of us have vague notions of what life in Iraq is like today; but perhaps even more mysterious is what life in Iraq was like hundreds of years ago. Since U.S. residents can visit the Kurdistan region of Iraq relatively easily (via a visa-on-arrival process), the most curious among us have begun exploring.

“When we learned about Kurdistan being open to tourism, we had to jump on it,” said Julie McCormack, program director for Asia and the Middle East for Mountain Travel Sobek (MTS). “Kurdistan has so much holy land and Mesopotamian history — plus, there’s interest about the Kurdish experience over the past several decades. It’s a unique combination.”

Clients on MTS’ new-for-2019 Iraqi Kurdistan trip will travel to Erbil Citadel in Erbil, Kurdistan’s capital city, where they will discover various sites within the citadel walls, such as its mosque, hammam and museum — all while exploring the many layers of archaeological remains that give the citadel its elevated position and earned it a UNESCO designation. Visitors will also stop at the Kurdish Textile Museum and handicraft shop — one of a few such stores in Iraqi Kurdistan — which allows visitors to bring a piece of Erbil home with them.

“The most noteworthy thing about the citadel is the fact that it’s 7,000 years old and has been inhabited continuously,” McCormack said. “There is only one caretaking family remaining who continues to live there since it became a UNESCO site. It is currently under UNESCO restoration, which will preserve it for future generations.”


Joya de Ceren Archaeological Site, El Salvador

Criteria: III, IV

Replace Mount Vesuvius with Laguna Caldera, and Pompeii, Italy, with Canton Joya de Ceren, El Salvador, and you’ll start to understand the appeal of Joya de Ceren Archaeological Site. Fortunately, the story isn’t quite as tragic here: Folks were warned ahead of time of an earthquake, so they weren’t buried and preserved under the eruption. Nonetheless, many refer to this site — El Salvador’s only UNESCO designation — as an homage to people.

“Most Maya sites are temples, or grand religious or political structures,” said Melanie Moore, product manager for Avanti Destinations. “While those are interesting to visit, they don’t give you a sense of the life of the common people.”

A farming community until the eruption in A.D. 600, Joya de Ceren is considered the best example of a pre-Hispanic village in Mesoamerica. Ten of the 18 earthen structures discovered here have been fully excavated, and visitors can spot evidence of everyday life such as gardening materials and sleeping mats.

Detailed commentary makes the site come alive: Consider a guided tour with Avanti Destinations, which coordinates both day trips and longer itineraries (such as its 10-day El Salvador and Guatemala Package).


Maloti-Drakensberg Park, South Africa and Lesotho

Criteria: I, III, VII, X

Most folks bound for South Africa have wine tasting and safaris on their minds, but they’d be remiss to skip Maloti-Drakensberg Park, a transboundary site that consists of Sehlabathebe National Park in Lesotho and uKhahlamba Drakensberg National Park in South Africa. Meeting four heritage criteria points, the UNESCO site is mixed, meaning it’s notable for both its cultural and natural contributions.

About 2.5 hours from Durban, South Africa, the 963-mile site has been preserved since the San people lived here in the Stone Age. During guided walks, clients can discover the 30,000-plus painted rock art images across 600 sites — noted as the largest concentration of rock art south of the Sahara Desert.

According to UNESCO, the mountainous site is also notable for its “exceptional natural beauty with soaring basaltic buttresses, incisive dramatic cutbacks and golden sandstone ramparts” and “rolling high-altitude grasslands, pristine steep-sided river valleys and rocky gorges.”

Cessy Meacham, a travel advisor and founder of Anytime Travel Solutions, believes Maloti-Drakensberg Park has remained under the radar due to its distance from a major airport, which is why she pairs the trip with a visit to Durban.

“With our partners, we provide a tour of Kamberg Nature Preserve’s rock art, the Nelson Mandela Capture Site, the Mahatma Gandhi House and other stops,” Meacham said.

Trekkers and bikers will want to explore the Amphitheatre, a dramatic cliff face that is crowned by Tugela Falls, one of the highest waterfalls in the world. Another popular activity is a guided four-wheel drive to Sani Pass, the third-highest mountain pass in the world and the gateway to Lesotho.


Nahanni National Park, Canada

Criteria: VII, VIII

Though one of the inaugural 12 World Heritage sites listed in 1978, Canada’s Nahanni National Park has managed to lie low. This has much to do with the remoteness of the park, which requires a floatplane to enter.

According to Nahanni Wilderness Adventures, only about 500 visitors come to the park each year — and nearly half of them book through a commercial operator. What results is an intimate and well-controlled adventure in what UNESCO qualifies as an example of “exceptional natural beauty” and “major stages of Earth’s history.”

“The Nahanni has more geological diversity than just about any place on the planet,” said Joel Hibbard, a guide and communications manager for Nahanni Wilderness Adventures. “Thundering waterfalls, towering mountain walls and racing water along kilometer-high sheer cliffs all come together to showcase millions of years of our Earth’s development.”

The company offers several different ways to explore the park, but Hibbard recommends its Virginia Falls 12-Day Adventure. After a charter flight to Virginia Falls, a 157-mile rafting and inflatable kayaking trip begins. The guided adventure travels alongside the park’s deep river canyons and includes hiking excursions and scenic camping.


Ningaloo Coast, Australia

Criteria: VII, X

Down Under and under-the-radar, the 162-mile Ningaloo Coast is home to Australia’s “other reef.” Though you’ll have to spend a few extra hours in the air to get to the Western Australia location, once you’re there, there’s no need to board a boat to hit a snorkeling hot spot.

The world’s largest fringing reef, Ningaloo features some 300 coral species exploding with colorful marine life (including 700 reef fish species and 600 crustacean species) just steps from relatively untrodden white-sand beaches.

There’s also rich diversity in coastal and terrestrial landscapes here, but perhaps the biggest driver of visitors are the 300 to 500 whale sharks that visit the coast annually (considered the largest gathering in the world). What this remote part of Australia lacks in year-round residents, it makes up for in biological diversity.

For a glamping option, consider Sal Salis safari camp, while beachfront Novotel Ningaloo Reef in Exmouth is ideal for families. Tour operators Down Under Answers, Swain Destinations and Qantas Vacations all package trips to the area.


Old City of Acre, Israel

Criteria: II, III, V

The medieval Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem officially ended with the destruction of Acre in 1291, but remains are intact enough to inspect the layout of the former Crusader capital city.

These remnants, which date to A.D. 1104-1291, intermingle with the city’s predominant Ottoman features, such as a citadel, mosques and baths dating from the 18th and 19th centuries. Perhaps most interestingly, the fortified harbor town is a good example of a modern-day mixed Jewish and Arab community.

About 10 years ago, few would consider spending the night in Acre but, thanks to visionary entrepreneurs and a motivated mayor, today’s visitors can stay in a painstakingly restored Ottoman villa or at Efendi Hotel, a 12-room boutique property featuring a Byzantine-era wine cellar, a rooftop deck with Mediterranean views and an original Turkish hammam. Further proof that the site is worth sending clients to is its inclusion in Regent’s 2021 World Cruise itinerary, which includes Acre alongside some of UNESCO’s World Heritage headliners.


UNESCO’s Criteria Key

I: to represent a masterpiece of human creative genius

II: to exhibit an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning or landscape design

III: to bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization that is living or that has disappeared

IV: to be an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape that illustrates (a) significant stage(s) in human history

V: to be an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement, land-use or sea-use, which is representative of a culture (or cultures), or human interaction with the environment, especially when it has become vulnerable under the impact of irreversible change

VI: to be directly or tangibly associated with events or living traditions, with ideas or with beliefs, with artistic and literary works of outstanding universal significance. (The Committee considers that this criterion should preferably be used in conjunction with other criteria)

VII: to contain superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance

VIII: to be outstanding examples representing major stages of Earth’s history, including the record of life, significant ongoing geological processes in the development of landforms or significant geomorphic or physiographic features

IX: to be outstanding examples representing significant ongoing ecological and biological processes in the evolution and development of terrestrial, freshwater, coastal and marine ecosystems and communities of plants and animals

X: to contain the most important and significant natural habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity, including those containing threatened species of outstanding universal value from the point of view of science or conservation