The paper provides new insights into the relationship between heritage preservation and the economic, social and institutional factors expressing countries’ level of development. While investments in heritage preservation are increasingly recognized as a strategy for development and poverty reduction, little research has been conducted to understand which conditions trigger the valorization of cultural resources. Using panel data and focusing on World Heritage, we find that poor countries can be affected by a vicious circle, in which the low level of development hinders culture promotion, while the failed exploitation of national heritage in turn hinders the possibility of culture based development strategies. Finally, we stress the importance of new international policies improving the representativeness of poor countries in UNESCO political institutions to avoid their marginalization in culture promotion, increase their empowerment and stimulate sensibility on the importance of culture as a development strategy.