Spanning five continents, the newest entries on Unesco’s list of World Heritage sites celebrate natural treasures and human ingenuity.

A Viking Age fortress in Denmark, a Silk Road corridor in Uzbekistan and an elephant stronghold in the Congo: the 42 new destinations and five extensions added to Unesco’s list of World Heritage sites in 2023 celebrate natural wonders and cultural creations around the globe, ensuring their protection for future generations.

The finalized list was announced September 25, following two weeks of deliberations among World Heritage Committee members who gathered in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to discuss 50 nominations submitted throughout 2022 and 2023. There are now 1199 Unesco World Heritage sites spread across 168 countries. 

Bale Mountains National Park, Ethiopia
The biodiversity of Bale Mountains National Park in Ethiopia earned it a place on the 2023 World Heritage list © Roger de la Harpe / Shutterstock

Understanding Unesco’s World Heritage list

A specialized branch of the UN, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization is tasked with promoting global peace and unity through “cooperation in education, sciences, culture, communication and information.” The concept of World Heritage was developed to identify, protect and preserve sites of cultural and natural significance considered to be of “outstanding universal value to humanity.” 

According to Unesco, inclusion on the World Heritage List demands that a site meets one of 10 criteria, such as representing “a masterpiece of human creative genius” or containing “superlative natural phenomena.” 

Unesco’s endorsement often benefits destinations – inspiring tourism, bringing prestige and committing countries to protect sites within their jurisdiction. If a World Heritage site begins degrading due to struggles from natural disasters, war or underfunding, Unesco-designated destinations can use money contributed by participating countries for emergency relief.

The power of the World Heritage platform saved Cambodia’s Angkor Archaeological Park from pillaging, blocked a dam proposal above Africa’s Victoria Falls and generated restoration assistance for Dubrovnik following damage caused by artillery fire during the Croatian War. 

But World Heritage status can also be a curse, potentially driving overtourism and its negative effects. Italian writer Marco d’Eramo, in an essay for the New Left Review, dubbed this destruction “Unesco-cide” – the poison that turned San Gimignano, a tiny Tuscan town, from a charming local enclave to “a set for a medieval costume movie.”

Still, the benefits often outweigh the drawbacks. Unesco’s stamp of approval provides nations with a blueprint for protecting their most beautiful sites and travelers with a road map for finding the world’s wonders. 

Prasat Pram is part of the Koh Ker group of temples, located north of Siem Reap, Cambodia
The newly Unesco-listed temples of Koh Ker make a worthy day trip from Siem Reap, Cambodia © Jack Reynolds / Getty Images

Exciting additions to the World Heritage List 

This year’s new sites span five continents, including ancient dwellings, centuries-old architecture and essential ecosystems. 

The addition of Koh Ker, capital of the Khmer Empire from 928 to 944 CE, reflects Unesco’s commitment to support the preservation of Cambodia’s cultural heritage. Koh Ker is home to Prasat Thom, Southeast Asia’s only seven-tiered pyramid, which stands among an ensemble of temples and shrines decorated with sculptures and paintings. The site makes for a dynamic day trip from Siem Reap, home of Angkor Wat. 

In Guatemala, the inclusion of pre-Hispanic stronghold Tak’alik Ab’aj celebrates the birthplace of Mayan culture and honors Indigenous groups who still visit the sacred site to perform rituals. 

Adding Ethiopia’s Bale Mountains National Park to the list acknowledges the landscape’s unique biodiversity while safeguarding its rivers, which supply water to millions of people in Ethiopia and beyond. 

Bale Mountains is one of five new sites added in Africa, helping the continent reach a notable milestone: 100 destinations on the World Heritage List. Still, the continent only accounts for roughly 9% of World Heritage sites, a number Unesco is making concerted efforts to increase. During deliberations, members of the World Heritage Convention adopted a strategy to support African states in conserving sites and creating World Heritage nomination files. 

An archeological site in Jericho, one of the world’s oldest continually settled towns, in the West Bank, was a controversial inclusion on this year’s list © Robert Hoetink / Shutterstock

Controversial inclusions 

Despite the international acclaim of a World Heritage designation, not all sites receive unanimous praise.

This year’s inclusion of prehistoric ruins near the West Bank city of Jericho, one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited settlements, stoked Israeli-Palestinian tensions. Unesco listed the site, Tell es-Sultan, as located in Palestine – although Israel controls the territory and doesn’t recognize the Palestinian state. 

Palestinians see the site’s World Heritage status as an important recognition of their identity; far-right Israelis see the decision as a political dig. (Israel withdrew from Unesco in 2019, citing anti-Israeli bias.) 

Protecting World Heritage sites 

In addition to new sites, the committee added two places in Ukraine to its so-called “Endangered List”: Kyiv’s St Sophia’s Cathedral and the historic center of Lviv. Unesco cited Russia’s ongoing invasion as the reason for their addition. 

“Faced with the risk of direct attack, these sites are also vulnerable to the shock waves caused by the bombing of the two cities,” Unesco wrote in a statement. Inclusion on the list will help Ukraine receive financial and technical aid. 

African forest elephant in Lekoli River, Odzala-Kokoua National Park, Cuvette-Ouest Region, Republic of the Congo
An important habitat for elephants, Odzala-Kokoua in the Republic of the Congo is a new addition to Unesco’s list of World Heritage sites © Education Images / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The complete list of new and extended World Heritage sites

Here’s the full list of new Unesco additions for 2023, by continent:

New Unesco sites in Africa

  • The Gedeo Cultural Landscape, Ethiopia
  • Forest Massif of Odzala-Kokoua, Congo
  • Koutammakou, the Land of the Batammariba, Benin and Togo
  • Andrefana Dry Forests, Madagascar
  • Djerba, Tunisia
  • Memorial sites of the Genocide: Nyamata, Murambi, Gisozi and Bisesero, Rwanda
  • Bale Mountains National Park, Ethiopia
  • Nyungwe National Park, Rwanda

New Unesco sites in Asia 

  • Cultural Landscape of Old Tea Forests of the Jingmai Mountain in Pu’er, China
  • Deer Stone Monuments and Related Bronze Age Sites, Mongolia
  • Gaya Tumuli, Republic of Korea
  • Gordion, Turkey 
  • Koh Ker, Cambodia
  • Santiniketan, India
  • Silk Roads: Zarafshan-Karakum Corridor in Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan
  • The Persian Caravanserai, Iran 
  • Ha Long Bay - Cat Ba Archipelago, Viet Nam
  • Hyrcanian Forests, Azerbaijan and Iran
  • Ancient Jericho/Tell es-Sultan, State of Palestine
  • Cultural Landscape of Khinalig People and “Köç Yolu” Transhumance Route, Azerbaijan
  • Sacred Ensembles of the Hoysalas, India
  • The Ancient Town of Si Thep and its Associated Dvaravati Monuments, Thailand
  • Wooden Hypostyle Mosques of Medieval Anatolia, Turkey 
  • Cold Winter Deserts of Turan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan
  • Tugay forests of the Tigrovaya Balka Nature Reserve, Tajikistan
  • ’Uruq Bani Ma’arid, Saudi Arabia
  • The Cosmological Axis of Yogyakarta and its Historic Landmarks, Indonesia

New Unesco sites in Europe

  • ​​Jewish-Medieval Heritage of Erfurt, Germany
  • Modernist architecture (1919–39) of Kaunas, Lithuania
  • Old town of Kuldīga, Latvia
  • Prehistoric Sites of Talayotic Menorca, Spain
  • Viking-Age Ring Fortresses, Denmark
  • Žatec and the Landscape of Saaz Hops, Czechia
  • Astronomical Observatories of Kazan Federal University, Russian Federation
  • Eisinga Planetarium in Franeker, Netherlands
  • Funerary and memory sites of the First World War (Western Front) in Belgium and France
  • The Maison Carrée of Nîmes, France
  • Zagori Cultural Landscape, Greece
  • Evaporitic Karst and Caves of Northern Apennines, Italy
  • Historic Centre of Guimarães and Couros Zone, Portugal

New Unesco sites in North America 

  • Tak’alik Ab’aj, Guatemala
  • Tr’ondëk-Klondike, Canada
  • Volcanoes and Forests of Mount Pelée and the Pitons of Northern Martinique, France
  • Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks, United States of America
  • Anticosti, Canada

New Unesco sites in South America

  • ESMA Museum and Site of Memory – Former Clandestine Center of Detention, Torture and Extermination, Argentina
  • Jodensavanne Archaeological Site: Jodensavanne Settlement and Cassipora Creek Cemetery, Suriname

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