World Heritage Sites ... are there too many now?

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OMORI, Japan — Home to a silver mine whose production peaked nearly four centuries ago and finally closed in 1923, this tiny rural town in western Japan once seemed doomed to suffer the fate of so many former boomtowns. Perhaps one day, after the last of the die-hards had moved away and the town’s abandoned wooden houses had been ground to dust, the surrounding thick forests would have simply swallowed up Omori.

But after intense lobbying by Japan, the Iwami Silver Mine here, which many Japanese had never heard of, was improbably named a Unesco World Heritage site last year. Having joined the ranks of the Pyramids, the Taj Mahal, Angkor Wat, not to mention Japan’s own Kyoto and Nara, Omori — population 413 — has been flooded with hundreds of thousands of tourists....

The World Heritage designation has been a godsend for Omori’s home prefecture of Shimane, which, like most other economically depressed areas in rural Japan, has been trying to raise revenues through tourism. Not surprisingly, some regional governments are now pushing 40 of their own World Heritage contenders, ranging from Mount Fuji to sites of varying degrees of obscurity.

Still, the designation of this relatively unknown site has raised eyebrows, not least among locals and visitors. It is also likely to deepen the larger debate over whether the World Heritage label is being diluted through an ever-growing list of locations — now standing at 878 worldwide — and whether inclusion can do more harm than good in preserving a place unprepared for the inevitable influx of tourism.

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