Supporters of the nomination, including local politicians and the highly conservative Friends of the Historic Centre of Amsterdam consider the title awarded by UNESCO a supreme distinction. Some of them are convinced that it will prove to be goldmine that brings more tourists to the city, even though the PricewaterhouseCoopers consultancy has calculated that in 2008, UNESCO recognition had a very low impact on tourist numbers which it increased by only a few percentage points. These enthusiasts also foresee a change in the type of tourists visiting the city — no more "bellowing Britons" who are to be replaced by more cosmopolitan well-heeled visitors — and in so doing they ignore the fact that most tourists are unaware of UNESCO labels when visiting individual sites.

New listings more common than Starbucks

Gone on are the days when the UNESCO label was restricted to threatened natural landscapes and exceptional towns and monuments imperilled by development. There are now 900 names on the World Heritage List, and 26 more are being added every year: an increase in numbers which has reduced the prestige of the distinction. American visitors seeking a cultural fix do not need to visit Netherlands, they could also go to Aix-la-Chapelle, Cologne, Brussels, Bruges or Bath, which have all been recognized by UNESCO. And new listings are being approved so quickly they may soon be more common than Starbucks.

According to its opponents led by the highly vocal activists of the Ai Amsterdam action group, the inclusion on the World Heritage List will be the kiss of death for the centre of Amsterdam, which will now become an over-regulated open-air museum. In short, the Dutch capital will be deserted like Bruges, although in fairness it should be pointed out that the Belgian town was well on its way to being a museum exhibit before it was included on the list in the year 2000.

Some commentators have also cited Amsterdam’s inscription on the UNESCO list as evidence of the city’s gentrification. However, in so doing they have overlooked the fact that heritage protection regulations in the Dutch capital are stricter than those advocated by UNESCO.

UNESCO not a Trojan horse

Fears that regulations will be progressively tightened to the point where public authorities interfere on every level have no real foundation. UNESCO is not a Trojan horse designed to surreptitiously introduce laws to prevent advertising on building facades and new development programmes. If anything, the hallmark of its rules on the management of heritage sites is an ambiguity that leaves plenty of scope for interpretation. Even in Venice, the prototype of the outdoor museum, where the number of residents has divided by two over the last 60 years, modernisation and commerce are still present. Only two years ago, the city inaugurated a new bridge by Spanish high-tech architect Santiago Calatrava, which had been built despite vociferous protest from the local population. And the practice of hanging advertising bill boards on some of the most beautiful facades on the Grand Canal and St Mark’s Square has continued with support from local heritage authorities and in spite of — or perhaps thanks to — UNESCO.

So what now? The short answer is let’s pretend that UNESCO does not exist. You have to do something truly monstrous or cheat on virtually all of the rules to lose UNESCO heritage status. When Dresden was dropped for building a new bridge in 2009, Frankfurter Rundschau was wholly justified in remarking that "UNESCO certainly came to decision, but failed to find a solution." In opting for innovation Dresden gave up its place on the list, while UNESCO lost one of its sites and also the support of some of its partisans.

Amsterdam should follow the example of Dresden and use its place on the world heritage list to show Amsterdamers, tourists and officials at UNESCO, that its role as a historic city "of exceptional universal value" does not mean it should not be modern or determined to embrace change. It must refuse to budge on the issue of the skyscrapers to be built at Overhoeks (in the north of the city) – which are not allowed under UNESCO roles – or the new bridge to be constructed close to the Amstel Hotel. If the residents of Paris – which is home to the headquarters of UNESCO – complied with these regulations, the Pompidou Centre and the glass pyramid at the Louvre would never have been built. And that would have been a pity.