"This was the best possible decision," says Jon Brodie from James Cook University in Townsville, Australia.
He and others trying to save the reef think it will push Australia into protecting the reef from pressures such as coastal development and climate change.
The draft decision welcomes government plans to improve water quality, but says the outlook remains poor. UNESCO has now given Australia 18 months to report back on how protection plans will be implemented and funded.
A recent report by a government advisory body found it would take A$785 million by 2020 to clean up water around the reef, but only about A$250 million has been committed, Brodie says.