Here at last was someplace venerable, a place hidden in a high valley in Yunnan, far away from the destructive gaze of Beijing. Until recently, that is. The moment Lijiang was declared an official UNESCO World Heritage Site, the gold rush was on as thousands of Han Chinese made their way to this corner of Yunnan Province to earn their living as proprietors of tick-tacky souvenir emporiums.
- J. Maarten Troost, Lost on Planet China
I had similar concerns when someone emailed me several months back asking if the Shikoku pilgrimage should be considered as a UNESCO site. Granted, Japanese don't exactly hound you at every footstep in the midst of touristy areas, but these sites can still be rather overrun by tacky souvenir stands.
Will every place in the world suffer the same fate as they get mentioned in Lonely Planet, designated a UNESCO world heritage site, or written about in a best seller? A casual reference can leave an area untouched, or inundate it with picture-hungry tourists.
It's been two years since I hiked in Shikoku, and I enjoyed it immensely. I wonder what the trail would look like in ten years with a UNESCO endorsement? English language assistance at the first temple? Routes marked clearly? Half the fun is in rising to the challenge: learning the Japanese vocabulary for the clothing you need, buying the books showing the procedure at each temple and the trail to follow... Take all that away, and you end up with something not much better than Lijiang.