June 23, 2013— -- A popular new summer bobsleigh ride located near Germany's famous Loreley is becoming a contentious issue for the Rhine Valley's cultural heritage status. UNESCO is warning that the tourist attraction should be dismantled.
In 2002, UNESCO bestowed Germany's Upper Middle Rhine Valley, long a favored motif for Romantic painters and destination for tourists, with World Cultural Heritage Status because it "graphically illustrates the long history of human involvement with a dramatic and varied natural landscape." Some 40 hilltop castles and fortresses built over 1,000 years line the 65 kilometer (40 mile) stretch between Rüdesheim and Koblenz.
But it is precisely this "human involvement" that now has UNESCO criticizing the region. The guardians of the world's cultural heritage urged the local community to demolish a summer bobsleigh track built near the famous Loreley cliff along the Rhine River. The rock is the subject of German myths and one of the most stunning natural features of the Rhine Valley.
At its annual conference, taking place in Phnom Phen, Cambodia, this week, UNESCO's World Heritage Committee warned the Alpine slide is "not compatible with the outstanding universal value of the World Heritage property," arguing that it "considerably alters the cultural landscape. The site is definitely damaged in its authenticity and integrity." The committee has recommended that it be dismantled and "returned to its previous natural state."
Bobsleigh owner Rainer Knecht doesn't understand all the fuss over the two-minute, blood-pressure raising ride he owns. "When I think that people in Phnom Penh are getting worked up over this, I just don't even know how to respond," he told the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper. Since the attraction opened over Easter, some 30,000 people have taken a run down the Loreley Plateau.
Environmentalists in the region had protested against the ride's construction, but Knecht ultimately obtained permission from local planning authorities. He's also got some heavy hitters on his side. Roger Lewentz, the state interior minister for Rhineland-Palatinate, said he knew from "his own experience how well received" the new attraction has been -- a magnet for the many tourists in the region and for locals alike. He said he was unhappy UNESCO had failed to recognize this.
At the moment, it may only be a warning from UNESCO, but it could create problems in the long run. Dresden was stripped of its prestigious World Cultural Heritage status for the Elbe River Valley in 2009 after the city moved ahead with construction of a bridge over the river that the international organization had opposed.
However, state officials in Rhineland-Palatinate did score one victory with UNESCO this week. Although the committee has opposed a cable car built over the Rhine River in the city of Koblenz, it has said it will tolerate its existence until 2026. The cable car had originally been built for a major garden show in the city in 2011 and was intended to be dismantled afterwards, but it proved such a popular tourist attraction that the city decided to keep it.