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Heritage is much more than mere monuments

The Bernina Express has been shortlisted for World Heritage status. Rhätische Bahn, P. Donatz, Bad Ragaz

Switzerland will be giving its support to a wider definition of internationally recognised heritage sites this week at a United Nations meeting in South Africa.

The move comes as Unesco is trying to encourage the listing of World Heritage sites outside Europe that require better protection.

The World Heritage Committee, which approves new sites, believes Europe is generally over-represented among the 788 listed objects worldwide, particularly when it comes to monuments.

To correct this imbalance, it has begun to implement a new strategy that takes into account regions with little or no heritage sites, and considers objects of industrial or architectural interest.

“There are too many sites in Europe,” said Johann Mürner of the Federal Culture Office. “You only have to consider the cultural wealth of countries like Italy, France or Spain to understand why.”

The committee wants new sites to reflect what it calls Universal Outstanding Value. This means respecting different cultures and regions of the world.

No second chance

For Switzerland, which has drawn up a shortlist of five potential new sites that fulfil some of the key criteria, there is a major interest in seeing this policy succeed.

“We have for example selected the Bernina Express railway and the city of La Chaux-de-Fonds – an example of 19th-century architecture – because they are within the proposed guidelines and not classical monuments,” Mürner told swissinfo.

Switzerland originally had one site planned for heritage-listing consideration at this week’s meeting, the Glarus Overthrust, a region in eastern Switzerland that offers a major insight into Alpine geology. But the authorities withdrew its candidacy after a negative evaluation report.

“You only have one chance at getting listed,” said Mürner. “If the committee turns it down, you can forget about a listing permanently.”

The Swiss will now consider the report’s findings and correct any perceived failings of the candidate site. It seems that it is not the site itself which is a problem, but other issues that have derailed the project.

“We have to remedy any problems so we can have a better chance of getting a listing for the Overthrust,” said Mürner. “We have to come up with a management plan for the site that is comparable to similar listed regions elsewhere and improve the quality of our proposal.”


For the Swiss, a heritage listing is not as important as it might be in some other countries, particularly in the developing world. According to Mürner, European nations usually already guarantee sufficient protection to exceptional sites.

“A listing is more likely to have an impact for the tourism industry since it helps attract visitors,” he added.

But pushing for a heritage listing can also have another benefit. Because the committee requires a management plan before it makes its decision, the use and the procedures involving a site are scrutinised.

“The Bernina Express railway is working on a concept that brings together elements such as the countryside, the railway and the protection of the site,” said Mürner.

“Whether it makes it onto the heritage list is finally not that important since we have a complete project that is useful for us anyway.”

swissinfo, Scott Capper

There are six World Heritage sites in Switzerland:
The old town of the capital, Bern; the convent in St Gallen; the Benedictine monastery in Müstair; Bellinzona’s castles; the Aletsch glacier region; Monte San Giorgio.
The Lavaux winegrowing area above Lake Geneva; the Bernina Express; buildings by Swiss architect Le Corbusier; the urban area of La Chaux-de-Fonds and Le Locle and prehistoric lake-dwelling sites.

Forty-two new sites will be proposed for heritage listing during the session of the World Heritage Committee in Durban, South Africa.

The Committee will review 28 cultural sites, 10 natural sites and 4 mixed sites presented by 44 countries.

It will also re-examine the 35 sites currently on the List of World Heritage in Danger, which face serious threats including chemicals, mining, pollution and war.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR