I fly from the East Coast to visit my sister in San Diego pretty frequently. In our younger days, my visits were spent bar and beach hopping. But as we got older, and with a toddler now in the back seat, we starting exploring more of San Diego’s cultural offerings. Recently, we’ve been venturing further around Southern California. On my visit this past March, my sister suggested San Juan Capistrano. She said there was a mission there. “You mean, like, an old church?” I asked. “It’s supposed to be nice,” she replied. “Well, is it a UNESCO site?” was my next question. We looked it up. It wasn’t. But we went anyway.
Thinking about it later, I felt like a jerk for asking such a question. Because the Mission San Juan Capistrano is beautiful. The courtyard is peaceful and serene, and the rooms full of history about the settlement of California. What really blew me away were the ruins of the original church, which was destroyed in an 1812 earthquake. Standing before it, images of Petra came to mind, and I wondered why this wasn’t a World Heritage site.
But then I wondered why that was so important – I mean, why was it important to me? At some point, as I got more adventurous in my travels, the UNESCO list became my guide as to what was worth visiting. Like accumulating stamps in my passport, I could brag about how many I had seen. Sitting in that relaxing courtyard, I recalled visits to UNESCO sites which were packed with tourists, and, frankly, lost some of their magic for that reason. And I realized that I had been a UNESCO snob, not giving lesser known places a chance.
The UNESCO World Heritage list serves a great purpose. But I hope to never again use it as a benchmark to judge the value of a cultural or historical landmark. I would miss out on so many other amazing places.