Tracy L. Barnett, Special for USA TODAY
Five cherished portals to America’s Spanish colonial past have just been elevated to the stature of Machu Picchu, Stonehenge and the Taj Mahal with Sunday’s decision by the World Heritage Committee of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to grant World Heritage status to San Antonio Missions National Historical Park.
“We are thrilled,” said San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor, calling from Bonn, Germany, soon after the announcement was made. “The decision came right after Independence Day and we felt we were representing the United States on a world stage, so it was very exciting.”
After nine years of work coordinating the community efforts to secure UNESCO World Heritage status, National Park Service archaeologist Susan Snow was elated. “It means the Missions are now on a par with the other great World Heritage Sites, like the Pyramids of Giza and the Great Wall of China, and also our own World Heritage Sites, such as the Statue of Liberty and Independence Hall,” she said. “We’re all pretty excited to join such an elite family of sites around the world that help to tell the global story of the movement and combining of peoples.”
The nomination was the only one from the United States – and one of just three in the Americas – up for consideration in the committee’s annual meeting in Bonn this past week. It is only the third U.S. site to be designated in the past 20 years, the first in Texas and the 23rd in the United States.
Committee members commended the San Antonio delegation for putting forward a candidate that represents the diverse blend of cultures that formed the United States. “It was very affirming,” said Snow. “The countries were very supportive and happy to see the United States put up a site that brought diversity into the sites that are already on the World Heritage list, and one member commented that they hope we will bring more of these types of sites.”
Besides the more famous Alamo – actually a nickname for the historic Mission San Antonio de Valero – four other missions clustered around the San Antonio River are being recognized as the largest collection of Spanish colonial architecture north of the Rio Grande, and one of the largest collections of Spanish missions anywhere in the world. Each has its own architecture, its own essence and its own story, and each, except for the Alamo, is the home of an active parish.
Mission San José, for example, is the home of the Mariachi Mass, an enclosed mission compound with reconstructed living quarters and a gristmill where you can see how the river powered the grinding of grains. Mission Espada includes a historic ranch and examples of the acequia system the Spanish used to irrigate their lands. And Mission San Juan Capistrano includes a cemetery where some of the original inhabitants – indigenous as well as Spanish – are laid to rest.
“In San Antonio our history is still very much alive today,” said Casandra Matej of Visit San Antonio. “When we look at our missions today, they are living churches with Catholic Masses you can go to every Sunday. That’s one of the things the community is so excited about, because now we’ll be able to share our history around the world.”
Already the destination of choice for more than 31 million visitors each year, San Antonio is gearing up to receive even more tourism as a result of the new designation, but now with a more international flavor and with a greater emphasis on the city’s less developed South Side.
Already in the past several years a collaboration of entities including the Catholic Archdiocese, the San Antonio River Authority, the Bexar County government and non-profit groups like Los Compadres and the San Antonio Conservation Society have poured millions of dollars and many more work-hours into restoring the missions and the San Antonio River that historically connected them.
San Antonio’s river and missions were due for a facelift, and the impetus of the World Heritage designation motivated some serious renovation work. Not since the 1960s had there been any major work on the site. In the past several years, Bexar County and the San Antonio River Authority joined with the federal government and other agencies to carry out a $358 million river restoration project, bringing back the wildlife habitat, creating a portal from the river to each of the mission sites and expanding the River Walk from 3 to 15 miles. The newly extended linear parkway and botanical garden links the missions with restaurants, theaters, hotels, parks and museums, reached by hiking, biking, water taxi and even, along some sections, kayaking.
This restoration work was important in supporting the World Heritage designation process, said Stephen Morris, chief of the Office of International Affairs for the National Park Service, because it indicates a commitment to conservation of the site. “While the river and the portals are outside the boundary of the missions, they are in the buffer zone, and that’s important for the protection and conservation of resources within the boundary.”
An economic impact study indicated that World Heritage Site designation for the Missions was expected to generate an estimated $44 to $100 million in additional economic activity in the next decade, as well as 1,000 new jobs and more than $2 million in additional hotel tax revenue.
Looking ahead, the city of San Antonio and the state of Texas are working with a new committee to continue to improve Alamo Plaza to help visitors understand its rich history, said Snow, and there are plans for a prairie restoration project at the southernmost property associated with the Missions complex, Rancho de las Cabras.
“It’s obviously a monumental time for San Antonio and a great opportunity for us to share our history and our culture with the world,” said Matej.
Tracy L. Barnett is an independent writer specializing in travel, environment, Latin America and the Southwestern United States. She is the former travel editor of the San Antonio Express-News and the Houston Chronicle.