Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Achieving World Heritage Status for the Okavango Delta

Most people that visit the Okavango Delta are so taken aback by this vast maze of channels, lagoons, floodplains, flats, crossings, and islands that they assume that it must be a World Heritage Site. When informed that it is not a World Heritage Site, they all sit back, shake their heads, and disagree, lamenting the Botswana government and anyone else that could be involved in this travesty. The next question, having now thought about it, is: “How will World Heritage Status help the Okavango Delta?”

Dr Karen Ross (Okavango World Heritage Project) explains: “What a wonderful designation for the Okavango Delta if it is recognized as a Natural World Heritage site. There can be no better branding and marketing tool for communities and businesses involved in tourism – a sector which provides about 70 % of livelihoods in the region.”

Recognition as a site of global importance that needs to be saved for future generations is a powerful statement. With commercial hunting being phased out and more lodges and concessions being established it would appear that the Okavango Delta is doing fine. The facts are that poaching is on the rise in the areas to the north and est of the Okavango Delta, cattle are encroaching, and signs of pollution are beginning to appear in the main channels due to excessive boat traffic. This complex wetland ecosystem is, in many ways, an anachronisms in this day and age, preserved up until recently by border and civil wars in the Angolan highlands, all the way up to the source of the Okavango River near Huambo. Today, the Okavango Delta is faced by threats of new dam developments to support irrigation schemes and agricultural development in the catchment. Land mines are being removed and wildlife like elephants and general game are moving back into the catchment. People are, however, also migrating into these areas and signs of development are becoming more apparent. Namibia have repeatedly proposed a hydro-electric weir across the Okavango River at Popa Falls that would seriously hamper the functioning of the delta. There is no doubt that the future of this proposed World Heritage Site hinges on developments up in the catchment, which could have minimal impacts if the Okavango Delta World Heritage Site is considered in any development upstream – agriculture, mining, power generation or otherwise.

Dr Ross continues: “Such a listing is also an important extra-layer of protection for the Delta, which lies at the end point of the Okavango River Basin, and thus could be impacted by upstream developments from Angola and Namibia. Further, within Botswana there is also greater protection, for instance mining is not permitted in any World Heritage sites. Finally, a UNESCO World Heritage site, while retaining its sovereign status, has 189 State Parties monitoring the property through the Convention. the World Heritage Convention has more member States than any other UN Convention, and it is party to international law.”

Vietnam's beauty trap

Halong Bay is at risk from the sheer volume of visitors to its World Heritage-listed karsts and isles, writes Mary O'Brien.

There's no denying the magic of Vietnam's Halong Bay. Sailing on a traditional junk at a gentle speed through hauntingly beautiful waters dotted with thousands of limestone pillars is an unforgettable experience.

The bay, in north-east Vietnam, has been high on tourists' must-see lists since 1994 when it was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site for its spectacular seascape.

But the reality behind the picture-postcard views is worrying. Halong Bay is the most popular tourist destination in Vietnam. Last year, 5.5 million tourists, about half of whom were from overseas, visited the area, according to the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism.

Advertisement Most visitors drive from Hanoi, a 3½-hour journey on roads filled with motorbikes and other vehicles. Thousands of tourist boats ply the waters of the bay, which is bordered to the south and south-east by the Gulf of Tonkin. Many sail to the same places within the bay, so it's difficult to escape other boats.

Sadly, a day trip is no longer enough to experience the beauty of Halong Bay. A longer cruise is needed to reach the more pristine parts of this 1550-square-kilometre bay.

When I visited last month, our boat was surrounded by container vessels waiting for better weather before heading to sea. These ships came from Halong City, a growing centre for coal mining, mineral extraction and shipping.

The beaches near docks and piers are often strewn with rubbish and travel sites have noted complaints from visitors about pollution.

The authorities have taken some action, restricting the number of islands in the bay at which boats can land, so most tourists go to the same islands and caves. But past development, such as electrical wiring in caves or cafes on island beaches, can be unsightly. The bay was nominated as one of seven wonders of nature in November, and since then more international cruise ships have sailed in. In the first five months of this year, about 30,000 cruise ship visitors have come to Halong Bay, a 22 per cent increase on the same period last year, according to the Pattaya Daily News.

The managing director of Sydney-based Travel Indochina, Paul Hole, has been running tours to Vietnam for 19 years. He says 90 per cent of Australian tourists to the country visit Halong Bay.

"Once you get out beyond the craziness of the port, and certainly beyond the day-tripper boats, it's one of the most impressive backdrops to a boat trip anywhere in the world," he says. "It's a reality that directly in that port area, just because of the amount of traffic, there's a bit of detritus in the water there, but once you're out in the bay it's not an issue."

Tourism boom threatens China's heritage sites

In a quiet corner of southern China's Pearl River Delta, hundreds of abandoned watchtowers dot a landscape of water-logged rice paddies, lush bamboo groves and ancient villages.

Bristling with battlements and turrets, the ornate towers were built by families and villages in need of protection during the late 19th and early 20th centuries when much of the country was controlled by warlords and banditry was rife.

Now a UNESCO world heritage site, these days the Kaiping watchtowers, or diaolou as they are known locally, face a threat of a different nature -- the incredible boom in Chinese tourism.

The tiny village of Zili, which has the largest collection of towers, attracts dozens of tour buses on weekends. Their passengers are ushered around the towers by guides sporting red flags and microphones rigged up to loud speakers.

Sports car damages ancient Chinese site They chase the skinny chickens that roam about the dirt paths, snap photos, sample "peasant family food" and buy rustic bamboo souvenirs, while the village's few remaining elderly residents sit on small plastic stools and look on bemused.

It's a scene that's played out at other UNESCO sites across China, where world heritage status is increasingly being used as a economic vehicle to develop backward regions, says Chris Ryan, a professor of tourism at The University of Waikato in New Zealand.

"The idea behind having this status is that there are conservation, preservation and restoration issues, where in China it seems to be primarily geared toward promoting tourism and its economic benefit," says Ryan, who has studied Kaiping and another world heritage site in Anhui province, eastern China.

Man seeks to stage around-the-world blimp race

Don Hartsell knows his idea could be considered crazy.

"I thought this project was so large, so ambitious, that no one would take me seriously," says the Texas resident and aircraft enthusiast. "In fact, I was concerned they would think I was insane."

Hartsell is talking about his World Sky Race, which as conceived would be a grand global spectacle. If all goes according to plan, a fleet of airships will take off from London in 2014 and race each other around the world, watched by millions of spectators, before finishing six months later just outside of Paris.

The event is planned as a series of 18 back-to-back races that will circumnavigate the globe. Although the route isn't finalized, the proposed path will take pilots over at least four continents and about 130 United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage sites -- among them the Egyptian pyramids, the Taj Mahal, the Statue of Liberty and the Palace of Versailles.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Wildfire threatens World Heritage site on Canary Islands

A wildfire on Spain's Canary Island of La Gomera is raging in the Garajonay national park, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Rare subtropical forests are at risk of destruction.

The wildfire, which erupted on Saturday on the Canary Island of La Gomera, has affected 3,000 hectares (7,400 acres) of land, including 350 hectares, or nine percent, of the Garajonay national park.

The park's subtropical forests, which gained it a World Heritage listing, are home to 450 plant species, including eight that are found nowhere else.

The deep ravines and canyons on La Gomera have made fighting the fire difficult.

"The ravines act as chimneys for the fire when the wind blows and this complicates the task of getting the fire under control, " the head of the islands' government, Paulino Rivero, told reporters.

He added that there were two main fires on the island, one in the north that had entered the national park, and another in the La Laja Ravine area. He said arson was suspected, as the fire had started in three different places.

Six hundred people were forced to leave their homes over the weekend.

Mayor Jaime Luis Noda said several homes near the town of Vallehermoso had been destroyed.

Another fire on the neighboring island of La Palma near the town of Mazo has been brought under control after affecting about 1,000 hectares.

Spain has seen a number of serious fires this summer both in the Canaries and on the mainland after a very dry winter.

One on July 22 in the northeast province of Catalonia burnt out 14,000 hectares and claimed four lives. Fires in the Valencia region in early July affected some 50,000 hectares.