I’LL take any excuse to write about Skara Brae and its rings of stone. Every time I’ve visited Orkney’s Neolithic wonder, I’ve felt like a more deeply grounded being as a result.

It’s the combination of the everyday and the cosmic that moves me. In the settlements, you see the stone cots, the fireplace, the domestic display shelves: the human hearth, in all its timelessness.

But also from those shelves, you find the strangest-shaped objects – spiky grenades, three-pronged video game controllers, balls studded with meshing gears. What are they? Child’s toys, religious props, art for its own sake?

And then, a short distance from the sunken village, the Ring of Brodgar – only a score of stones left from the original 60-odd, but still the most humbling construction.

A giant transmitting and receiving dish, focussing the fears and hopes of this ancient community, and sending it propitiously to those mysterious stars (and forces) above. Nothing new, under the sun.

Part of the “heritage of the world”? Inarguable, I’d say.

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So it was pleasing to hear this week that, as one of UNESCO’s World Heritage sites, the “Heart of Neolithic Orkney” is at the core of new measures that aim to preserve these wonders across the planet.

At a World Heritage conference in Baku, Azerabaijan, Skara Brae was announced as the first test-case for the Climate Vulnerability Index assessment (or CVI). This isn’t much more exciting than a management tool. A method for helping anyone in charge of a World Heritage site to measure how much climate change makes an impact on that site’s “Outstanding Universal Value” (or OUV: UNESCO loves its bureaucratese).

For the Orkney site, it turns out that “Precipitation Change, Sea Level Change, and Storm Intensity and Frequency” are the big threats. There is (as the Scottish report puts it) “the potential for a single extreme event destroying part of Skara Brae”.

But it’s the combination of increasing rain and rising seas, with the ever-increasing footfall of tourists, that is steadily degrading the Skara Brae area. The hope of the UNESCOcrats is that CVIs, if quickly and regularly applied, can lend muscle to those managers who have to make hard calls about these sites.

One of which may be about limiting access to yearning wanderers like me.

This news has come with the annual announcement of new World Heritage sites.

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When you pay closer attention to it, this also comes with an increasing angst about the value of this award.

In short: does the increased traffic to a designated World Heritage site threaten to destroy whatever “Outstanding Universal Value” it had in the first place?

Step away from Scotland and the UK, and the story is often not so good. On the The Conversation website, academic Jo Caust tells a few stories of developing world sites that are beginning to crumble under the World Heritage attention.

Hoi An is a beautiful coastal village in Vietnam that evaded the destructions of the war. But since its designation in 1999, the sea-faring locals have been evicted, or turned into cafe owners and trinket sellers. Tour buses massively crowd around the area, and the streets are often impassable. “A lively trading community is becoming a theme park”, writes Caust.

Or take the astounding Hindu-Buddhist temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, whose visitors from 2004-2014 increased by more than 300% (it was awarded by the UN in 1992). The very ground these buildings stand on is subsiding—because their water tables are being drained by an explosion of local hotels and other commercial developments.

The fact that’s usually paraded at this point is the 7% year-on-year rise in global air travel since 2008, along with an assessment of the brutal carbon consequences of this rise in (mostly tourist) flying. But the link with UNESCO and tourism goes deeper than that.

The Italian architecture critic Marco D’Eramo notes that the World Heritage “brand” was “launched’ at the take-off of the world tourist revolution in the early seventies.

“The UNESCO brand allows the tourist industry to cash out the market value of authenticity, in the manner of a designer-fashion label or the Grand Cru wine classification”, writes D’Eramo. “The World Heritage marque is not the cause of tourism but rather its stamp of legitimacy, the do-gooding institution providing the industry with ideological cover.”

Ouch. As you look at the 29 new awardees – heralded in glossy “traveller” magazines like National Geographic – it’s hard not to hear the hum of airline and hotel servers, their algorithms calculating new opportunities.

As Angkor Mat crumbles into the ground, fear not: Bagan, Myanmar has astounding Buddhist temples aplenty. (“Look for ornate frescoes and stylistic differences between the temples on your own, with a guide, or from the sky in a hot air balloon at sunrise”, suggests NatGeo helpfully).

Seeking a less crowded “charming coastal town” than Hoi An? Try Paraty, Brazil, which also seems to be graced with “one of the world’s five key biodiversity hotspots that shelter jaguar, white-lipped peccary, and woolly spider monkeys”. (That is, until they’ve been scared off/freaked out by the clump of Salomon hiking boots, and the shutter-samples of smartphones).

Ok, I’m being snarky.

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But it’s hard to see how delicate delights like the Vatnajokull National Park in Iceland, or the spiritual sandstone carvings of the Blackfoot (Siksikáíítsitapi) people in Canada, or the fortified “pink city” of Rajasthan, Jaipur, aren’t going to be eventually ruined, or emptied, by the Sauron eye of high-end tourism falling upon them. Guided there, with some precision, by UNESCO.

I’m not ignoring the siren calls for the “right balance” to be struck here. It ill-behooves some lefty Westerner to deprive impoverished zones of their tourist dollars (which may well represent an easier livelihood than the one that’s been supplanted). And World Heritage status does bring expectations that the awardees will actively tend, defend and maintain their sites.

I just wonder whether the overwhelming deadlines of climate breakdown, which portend so much change in so many areas, will really radically change this kind of tourism.

Why do we think we have the right to sputter our waste into the skies, in order to gaze upon – and incrementally trash – the cultural and environmental wonders of the planet? Isn’t this a kind of experiential imperialism, minus guns but plus Google Maps, as exploitative a relationship with the deprived of the world as it ever was?

We will have to try and disengage the tourism juggernaut, from our willingness to designate places of “Outstanding Universal Value”. Assessments of “climate vulnerability” may well be a useful tool.

Or perhaps another way – and this may well go with the general revival of national democracy – is to treasure the heritage of one’s own nearby, and accessible, cultural treasures. Less carbon emitted in the car, bus or train.

And why does the experience need to be less than cosmic?

Talking of great circles aimed at the stars, and listening hard for messages… I was charmed to see that one of this year’s World Heritage awards went to the Jodrell Bank Telescope site in Cheshire.

A few years ago I spoke at the Bluedot Science and Music Festival which takes place there.

Its great radio dish loomed over everything, the most impressive stage prop ever.

However, there’s no doubt this unique relic of ultimate knowledge and science was falling apart at the seams. Its corrugated-iron surface was pitted with gaps, bits having fallen off in the Cheshire weather.

I’m enriched to have seen both Jodrell Bank and Skara Brae in my lifetime (and quite a few other World Heritage sites on the list). But maybe it’s time to be happier that these are all being protected and conserved on my behalf, as precious records of human achievement, than to think they’re always on my tourist intinerary.

Yet another new question to ask, before we consume the world again, without a second thought.