Monday, 21 November 2011

Ha Long Bay: New Natural Wonder

Just ten days ago, on November 11th, the new Seven Wonders of the World were announced. This time it was the turn for nature - what were the seven best things in the natural world? The vote was open to the public and in their wisdom they chose the following: the Amazon Rainforest, Ha Long Bay in Vietnam, Iguacu Falls in Brazil, Jeju Island in Korea, Komodo Island in Indonesia, Puerto Princesa Underground River in the Philippines, and Table Mountain in South Africa.


Those who know me and the reasons for my (man-made) Wonder quest know that it all started a few years ago, when visiting Rio de Janeiro. It was shortly after a similar vote for man-made Wonders had been done and Rio's Cristo de Redentor statue was in the Seven. Terrific, I thought, and visited it. It was nice, but never a Wonder. A 30 metre statue built in 1931 from reinforced concrete, it was nice, it was iconic, and it was in a nice position, but it was no way a Wonder of the World. The Empire State Building was built in the same year and was clearly better. The Eiffel Tower wasn't in the list. Cologne Cathedral, which blew me away, wasn't even in the running - yet Timbuktu was? But then I realised - who am I to say what's a Wonder and what isn't? Until the Cristo Redentor, I'd not seen any of the supposed "new 7". Thus the seeds were planted - I would make a shortlist of the best places in the world, research them, then visit them. I would proclaim myself the authority on World Wonders and nobody could argue with me (unless they had done the same).

Without branching off into a rant, there were a number of factors that made this new list of Wonders somewhat suspect. That it was open to a public vote at all. Unless the public were intimately familiar with the 21 on the shortlist, they would clearly just vote for the one they'd heard of, or the one that looked pretty in a photo. Or the one from their country - hence China (population 1,300,000,000) and India (population 1,100,00,000) unsurprisingly had demographics on their side. But other tricks could be played too. Jordan cast more votes than they had people - unsurprisingly, the majority for Petra - and in Rio the citizens were all sent text messages telling them to text and vote for the Cristo Redentor - for free.

Unfortunately, this new 7, due to most of the list being not unreasonable selections, have gained a degree of legitimacy around the world. Many seem to regard them as new and official World Wonders, even though it was just a promotional company and a popular vote that selected them, as though a special edition of the X-Factor. UNESCO, charged with protecting the world's most precious heritage sites, distanced themselves from the whole thing in no uncertain terms. But despite the fact that UNESCO might not like it, and I don't like it, and I'll stop speaking to you if you say you like it, the 7 Wonders Foundation were unquestionably successful in their objective.

But this new natural list, I'm not so sure of. No Uluru, no Great Barrier Reef, no Galapagos Islands, and Mount Everest wasn't even a candidate. The tallest mountain in the world not even a candidate? None of the Himalayas made it. The list is so peculiar that it's difficult to imagine anyone but patriotic supporters getting enthusiastic about it.

It gets a little deeper than just a silly public vote however, and there are strong - and not altogether surprising - claims that the whole thing is just a cynical money-making enterprise. And for that, I lead you to this blog, which highlights just how helpful money was to gaining a place in the list. And as this entry has turned, despite my intentions, into a rant, I will end now and start a new one on Ha Long Bay itself. Because it really is beautiful, no matter the methods used to make it a World Wonder.

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