With the addition this month of the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape to the World Heritage List, Australia now has 20 World Heritage Sites. Budj Bim - an aquaculture landscape in south-west Victoria where local people have used fish traps to catch eels for more than 6000 years - is particularly significant because it is the first one that is focused entirely on indigenous culture.
But what makes somewhere a World Heritage Site? And how is it chosen? Well, it's actually more complicated than most people realise.
Often, when you think of World Heritage Sites, you think of famous attractions from around the world - the Giza Pyramids in Egypt, Machu Picchu in Peru, the Colosseum in Italy. But they are not on the World Heritage List because they are iconic or popular with tourists. It's because of the cultural values that they represent.
With the 2019 meeting of the World Heritage Committee now complete, there are 1121 World Heritage Sites (including 29 new ones). While there are many famous tourist attractions on the list, the majority are probably places you have never heard of. Even in Australia, there are well-known sites like the Sydney Opera House, Uluru, and the Great Barrier Reef - but also less famous places like the fossil sites of Riversleigh and Naracoorte or the Willandra Lakes Region in NSW.
For somewhere to be included on the World Heritage List it needs to have what UNESCO calls "Outstanding Universal Value". This phrase can be interpreted in various ways, but what it essentially means is that the site is one of the best examples of a part of global history. So the Giza Pyramids are not a World Heritage Site because they're big and look impressive, it's because they represent an important era of Ancient Egypt's Old Kingdom.
This is why you find places all across the world that you may never have heard of (and probably have no plans to visit) but are listed on the World Heritage List. For example, churches that represent a specific period of religious history, temples that influenced the structures of others in the region, houses that are the best illustration of an architectural style, factories that show a shift to a new type of industry, and even cemeteries that show a particular style of urban design.
I always make an effort to visit World Heritage Sites when I travel. In fact, I have set myself a mission to try to see them all (a challenge I'm sure I will never actually complete). But it does often take me off the typical tourist trail, on fascinating detours that provide me with better stories than the famous landmarks that everyone knows about already.
I like to think of the World Heritage List as a museum of places that, assuming it is well-curated, tells the story of humanity through what we have created and the landscapes we have lived in.
I say "assuming it is well-curated" because we can't talk about the World Heritage List without acknowledging how sites are added. It's a very bureaucratic process that doesn't necessarily result in a balanced list.
Firstly, a site can only be considered for inclusion if it's nominated by the country where it is located. The reality is that some governments see the World Heritage List as more important than others. Which is how you end up with 46 German World Heritage Sites, but just three in Cambodia, for example.
Once a country has nominated a site, there are then lots of reports required and assessments by independent bodies about how the location is being managed. The reality is that this is often judged against Western standards and so parts of the world where these things are done differently (not worse, just differently) can be disadvantaged or discouraged. This is one of the reasons Europe has 47 per cent of all World Heritage Sites, while Asia has 24 per cent, Latin America has 13 per cent, Africa has 9 per cent, and Arab States have 8 per cent.
And then, even after all of this, a UNESCO committee of 21 countries (which regularly change) gathers each year to vote on whether to accept a new site based on a recommendation from the advisory bodies. Often the committee overturns a recommendation not to inscribe and the site is added to the list anyway. Why? Well, politics.
This year, for instance, Azerbaijan wanted to add a place called the Historic Centre of Sheki with the Khan's Palace but, after the assessment, the experts said it wasn't good enough. Yet the majority of the committee voted to make it a World Heritage Site regardless. Is it just a coincidence that Azerbaijan was hosting this year's committee meeting in Baku? Hmmm...
Still, regardless of the problems with the process, in general the World Heritage List is an excellent collection of the world's most important locations - cultural and natural. And that now includes Australia's new site of Budj Bim (which, I should note, was voted for unanimously and praised highly for the quality of the nomination).
Budj Bim may not be a major tourist attraction and it may not see an enormous growth in visitor numbers. But hopefully this recognition by UNESCO will at least raise the awareness of - and help to protect - one of Australia's most important indigenous sites. That's really the point of it all.
Michael Turtle is a journalist who has been travelling the world full-time for eight years. Read more about his travel adventures at timetravelturtle.com