KRAKOW • China has tied with Italy at the top of the Unesco World Heritage Sites list with help from a tiny island known for pianos.
The addition of Gulangyu, the pedestrian-only island near the city of Xiamen in Fujian province, onto the list last Saturday brought China's heritage sites to 52, surpassing Italy's 51 briefly before the latter had one more heritage site listed yesterday.
This was the Venetian Works of Defence between the 15th and 17th centuries, which spans Croatia, Italy and Montenegro.
Besides Gulangyu, the Hoh Xil natural reserve in China's northwestern Qinghai-Tibet Plateau also entered the Unesco list this year.
China's joint top position with Italy comes on the 30th anniversary of its first inclusion on the Unesco list back in 1987, with sites that included the Great Wall.
Professor Jin Yuanpu, director of the Cultural Industries Institute at Renmin University of China in Beijing, said there was a new attention paid to cultural preservation after the Cultural Revolution. "From the central government, to the Culture Ministry, to a lot of grassroots groups, a lot of attention has been given to the work of preservation of cultural and natural relics," he told the New York Times.
Meeting in Krakow, Poland, over the weekend, Unesco's World Heritage Committee has inscribed other heritage sites, including India's walled city of Ahmedabad, Cambodia's Sambor Prei Kuk temple and Japan's Okinoshima island.
Number of Unesco sites in Italy. They include city centres and town squares, with places like Venice's St Mark's Square under growing strain from the sheer number of visitors.
According to the Unesco website, trailing China and Italy in terms of heritage sites are Spain (46), France (42) and Germany (41).
In South-east Asia, Indonesia and Vietnam lead with eight sites each, followed by the Philippines with six and Thailand five. In 2015, Singapore celebrated the inscription of its first and only world heritage site, the Singapore Botanic Gardens.
While the Chinese state media has greeted the news of its two new heritage sites with pride, being designated a Unesco heritage site may not be all that good.
Entry fees to some sites in China were raised significantly after they were added to Unesco's list. For instance, the Classical Gardens of Suzhou raised group admission prices to 376 yuan (S$76) by 2004, up from 98 yuan in 1997 when it was given the Unesco designation.
As for the Hoh Xil nature reserve this time round, pro-Tibet activists have warned that its Unesco status may lead to the accelerated resettlement of the area's Tibetan herders, Agence France-Presse reported.
There are also fears that the tiny Gulangyu may not be able to cope with a possible surge in visitors after its new heritage status.
Last month, Italy's Culture and Tourism Minister Dario Franceschini warned that crowds should be limited at famous sites, to prevent them from becoming increasingly worn out.
Two world heritage sites have been delisted so far. The first was Oman's Arabian Oryx Sanctuary in 2007, delisted after poaching and environmental degradation nearly wiped out the Oryx population.
In 2009, Dresden Elbe Valley in Germany was removed, on the grounds that a bridge being built would bisect the valley.