In mid-November 2011, the New7Wonders Foundation of Switzerland announced the results of Internet balloting on its New7Wonders of Nature list. Taiwan’s Mt. Jade (Yushan) had been in the running, but failed to make the final cut in a process that has triggered considerable debate over “marketing to tourists” versus “protecting natural and cultural resources.”
The antecedents of the New7Wonders of Nature date all the way back to ancient Greece and the writings of such notables as the historian Herodotus and the head of the Library of Alexandria, Callimachus. In ancient Greece, the number seven symbolized perfection. But of course, the selection criteria for the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World were clearly quite narrow, for all seven (including the long-vanished Hanging Gardens of Babylon) were located in the Mediterranean region.
In modern times, every few years one organization or another (e.g. the American Society of Civil Engineers and the newspaper USA Today) has mobilized to come up with a new list of the world’s wonders. And in each case, the credibility of the process has been called into question.
Due to the deteriorating state of many historic structures in Europe since World War II, many people with an interest in historic preservation have seen a need to rely on an international force to protect mankind’s cultural and natural heritage. In 1972, the UNESCO adopted the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, under which world heritage sites are classified into cultural, natural, and mixed sites. Every state party to this convention nominates a list of properties for recognition as World Heritage sites, and these nominations are then vetted by the World Heritage Committee for final approval. It is generally agreed that this is the most credible selection process that anyone has come up with so far.
But even though the UN’s objective is cultural preservation, the World Heritage sites have nevertheless come to be closely associated with tourism. Countries everywhere have sought vigorously to get their local sites onto the World Heritage list, which now includes about 1,000 cultural and natural sites, including Cambodia’s Angkor Wat temple complex and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.
In comparison with UNESCO, private-sector undertakings have been relatively slipshod. With the New7Wonders of Nature, for example, the problem was not in the final list, but in the credibility of the organizer and its selection process, and in the significance of being included among the New7Wonders of Nature.
There are numerous indications that the New7Wonders of Nature campaign has been a marketing ploy. The organizing entity, the New7Wonders Foundation, was established by the Swiss adventure traveler Bernard Weber in 2001. Since the campaign got underway, there have been frequent reports of the foundation “dropping hints” for candidate nations to provide the organization with financial support. The Guardian newspaper of the UK, for example, reported that the government of the Maldives withdrew from the contest after receiving a request for a US$500,000 donation.
Small wonder, then, that UNESCO distanced itself from the New7Wonders Foundation in 2007 with a statement clarifying that any selection process carried out by the foundation was in no way connected with the UNESCO’s World Heritage program, and that the New7Wonders activity was of no material benefit to the cause of historic preservation.
The New7Wonders of Nature campaign got started in December 2007. The field of contestants was eventually narrowed down to 77, and then 28. Taiwan’s Mt. Jade made it through to the final 28, but then came reports that senior people from the New7Wonders Foundation had come to Taiwan to “seek financial support.” No corporate sponsors in Taiwan were willing to lend their support, however, and Yushan National Park only paid the US$199 registration fee.
Some in Taiwan still saw the activity as an opportunity to market Mt. Jade, and worked to whip up votes. But after the results of the voting were announced, the New7Wonders Foundation left people scratching their heads by stating that the results were only provisional, and that the final list would not be released until January 2012.
In an article urging against voting for Mt. Jade, travel writer Chen Zhidong relates that he lost interest in voting after discovering that Mt. Everest, Yellowstone Park, and the Gobi Desert were all missing from the list of 28 finalists, and then when he saw Cheju Island (where many Korean TV dramas are filmed) among the final 28, he concluded that the contest had nothing to do with a site’s natural value, but was a simple reflection of which nations had the greatest unity among their people and the fastest Internet connections. This was absurd, because “the original idea of a world heritage program is to promote the protection of important sites, not to market them.”
Taiwan tried hard to get sites included on the UNESCO World Heritage list, but its efforts went nowhere due to Taiwan’s exclusion from the UN. Indeed, much political jockeying is involved in the selection process. What’s truly important is whether we value our cultural and natural heritage, and whether we have a good program in place for their protection. If we are really serious about protecting Mt. Jade, what does it matter whether the mountain is included on someone’s list or not?