World Heritage sites were created as a result of a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) program; the first country to sign the World Heritage Convention was the United States in 1973 (which is ironic, given that the U.S. has relatively few World Heritage sites). The magazine gave 94 sites to a group of panellists and had them rate the site, and the experience of visiting the site, on a scale of 0 to 100. The scale is as follows:
0-25: Catastrophic: all criteria very negative, outlook grim.
26-45: In serious trouble.
46-65: In moderate trouble: all criteria medium-negative or a mix of negatives and positives.
66-85: Minor difficulties.
86-95: Authentic, unspoiled, and likely to remain so.
Sitting at a score of 56 is the world famous Stonehenge. The quotes from the panellists are as follows:
"Massive numbers of tourists cycle through the site on a daily basis, making for a crowded, noisy environment. Condition of the site is protected by fencing to discourage defacing the structures, but the visual sightlines are disrupted. It does not appear that local populations benefit from the tourist development of the site, which has been protected from excessive commercial and residential development."
"Aesthetic qualities compromised by existing road and adjacent development. Massive tourism is limited to a few hours' visit, so there are few benefits to surrounding communities."
"What a mess! Compelling … over-loved … certainly the current experience lacks magic."
"Crowd control is a good thing, but overregulation has made the visitor's experience rather disappointing, charm is gone. Would be good if something is done to surrounding landscape."
"Good interpretation and SO impressive. But you can get a similar impact from lots of other stone circles, especially up north in Scotland, without all the noise and intrusion."
The last quote is why this survey made it into The Scotsman newspaper. Basically, the magazine is suggesting that you'd get the same sort of impact with much more of the aesthetic charm by visiting Scotland.
I haven't been to Stonehenge. I have been to the Ring of Brogar and the Stones of Stenness on the island of Orkney. They are incredibly fascinating. Although nowhere near as famous as their southern cousin, and not as impressive as far as size and architecture, they are also older and very much accessible.
The stones at Stenness are in a farmer's sheep paddock. You don't need permission to access them, you just go through the little gate designed to keep in the sheep... and watch where you step.
The stones are about 4 metres high by 1.5 metres high (make that 13 feet tall and 5 feet wide). There used to be 12 in the circle, but now there are only five. While Stonehenge has parts that date from around 2950 BCE, most of what you see at Stonehenge was created by 2550 to 1600 BCE. The Stones of Stennes, on the other hand, date between 3000 and 2500 BCE.
The Ring of Brogar is a bit more modern, having been built sometime between 2500 and 2000 BCE. It is not far from the Stenness stones, and just as accessible. When I was there, in late September, 1992, there were no other tourists about (since it was now out of the "high season").
The Ring of Brogar (sometimes called "Ring of Brogdar") now consists of 36 stones, though originally it had 60 in a 104 metre (340 feet) diameter circle. Historic Scotland maintains the circle of heather in the middle of the field.
None of the problems the panellists mentioned for Stonehenge are present for the Orkney standing stones. You can walk among them. You can touch them. You can sit beside them. The sightlines are quite often beautiful. About the worst you have to worry about is sheep poo. It takes some work to get to them, but it is well worth the trip.
(The pictures, above, are from my own web site: http://www.hyperbear.com/scotland/scot.html. I apologize for the exposures. The colour pictures were actually taken on slide film and transferred to Photo CD 13 years ago. Unfortunately, the transfer wasn't great. If I can ever find scanner, or a scanning company, who can scan them digitally with more light I will post better pictures. They look really good from a slide projector, though.
The monochrome picture was actually taken on infrared film. Instead of exposing the film to x-rays, I made the mistake of having the airport security guard hand search it. He took the roll out of its container and possibly caused it to fog a little.
To see better pictures, I recommend: http://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/
westmainland/stennessstones/index.html for Stenness, and http://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/
westmainland/ringofbrogar/index.html for the Ring of Brogar.)
Mile for mile, the island of Orkney is perhaps the best place in Britain for historic sites. Castle and palace ruins, burial mounds, a neolithic village, iron age brochs, and standing stones. I only made it to the Mainland island, not to any of the adjoining islands, over the course of a weekend. It's my fervent wish that some day I will be able to go back and explore the Mainland in more detail, travel to the island of Hoy where my paternal grandfather worked as a ship's carpenter during World War II, visit Balfour castle on Shapinsay, and the broch and cairns on Rousay.
The National Geographic Traveller article is here:
The rating for Stonehenge is here:
The Scotsman's article is here: