Angkor/Siem Reap, Cambodia: “C–” and Sinking

[Above: Angkor Wat. Photo: Tony Chau]

Would You Change This Grade? You Can.

The great Khmer temples of Angkor have become one of the world’s most popular heritage tourism destinations. The adjacent gateway city of Siem Reap is approaching one million in population, with Angkor tourism driving most of the growth. Tourism impacts are extensive.

Recent stewardship news on Angkor and Siem Reap:

National Geographic survey panelist comments:

2006 – World Heritage survey:
“State of conservation and aesthetic appeal are high, and continuing to improve. There are serious future issues with the radical subsidence of the water table, which will threaten the stability of the monuments themselves. The single-minded pursuit of high-volume tourism (which has caused the subsidence of the water table through pumping) has also destroyed the social integrity of the town of Siem Reap, which is now overrun with karaoke bars and sex tourism venues.”

“The main Angkor temple area is heavily impacted, and vandalism both modern and ancient is obvious. At the same time the aesthetics are intact and the site impressive. Guides interviewed were knowledgeable and motivated. Smaller temple complexes were less impacted.”

“Tourism here benefits corrupt officials and corporations, not local people. Tourism aimed at East Asian (Chinese, Korean, Japanese) tourists is carpet-bagger tourism—they ride in Korean (for instance) buses, eat Korean food, have a Korean guide, and avoid any contact with local customs, foods, or people.”

2009 – Iconic Destinations survey:
“Angkor is one of the few places in the world that absolutely lives up to its reputation as a wonder. It does not disappoint. The huge scale of the Angkor area, which sometimes requires 20-minute-plus drives between temples, is truly astounding. The temple area is relatively well managed, although there are still too many visitors treating this sacred site as an adventure playground. The city of Siem Reap is a far more depressing spectacle. The square of boutique restaurants, expensive bottles of wine, and “chic” style in the city center, though tastefully developed in terms of aesthetics, is at stark odds with the rest of the town, which still feels poor and hopeless in many areas.”

“Angkor/Siem Reap is rapidly becoming a victim of its celebrity. Even in an economic slowdown it is saturated with tourist arrivals. Efforts to preserve the environment in the monument zone are fairly successful. The Cambodian community here is at best a spectator, existing on the periphery of the sites with local crafts markets. Hotels are international, and do not reflect the culture of the country.”

“The foundation of the ground on which the temples rest is in jeopardy—the water table underground is being drained, the land is sinking, and as a result the foundation of the temples is unstable. The only time to be there is in the early morning or late afternoon at some of the less popular temples. Management is atrocious. Local people are not reaping the benefits of this resource.”

How would you grade Angkor/Siem Reap in stewardship? Add a comment for others to consider.

About Jonathan Tourtellot

CEO, Destination Stewardship Center; Editor, Destination Stewardship Report; Principal, Focus on Places LLC; founding Director, former Nat Geo Center for Sustainable Destinations

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