Uncontrolled tourism is the biggest threat to Angkor Wat. Photo: tartahart (Flickr)
At the forefront of Cambodia’s emerging tourism industry, Angkor Wat is regarded by archaeologists as the world’s largest religious building. Built in the 12th century, the complex, located in Siem Reap, spans some 150 square miles and is featured on the nation’s flag. But even as the best source of foreign revenue for one of the world’s poorest countries, the mismanagement of Angkor continues to confound conservationists.
In a story this week for the Associated Press, reporter Denis Gray, who has covered Southeast Asia for 30 years, describes the array of management problems threatening the ancient site. Gray compares his first visit to Angkor Wat in 1980, when he was the sole visitor in the entire complex, to today’s “traffic jam” sharing the grounds with thousands of eager tourists recklessly exploring the site. Also featured is GHF’s executive director, Jeff Morgan, who says, “Nobody should be allowed to walk on 1,000-year-old stones.”
As detailed in the article, the development of direct flights to Siem Reap in 1998 resulted in an influx of tourists, as 60,000 visited Angkor that year. In 2001, with the momentum of Hollywood blockbuster “Tomb Raider”, which was filmed at the site, 250,000 visited the site. This year, Angkor saw 2.5 million visitors, and according to Cambodian Tourism Minister Thong Khon, that number is projected to grow to 6 million annually by 2020.
For Cambodia, which the UN still considers one of the world’s least developed countries, the current and future revenues created by Angkor — one of the top tourist destinations in Asia — are invaluable. But as conservationists have insisted for years, that potential can only be ensured if major changes are made to site management at Angkor.
Currently, the most serious threat is mass tourism. Little is being done to stop hoards of visitors from trampling the precious stonework, pounding its foundation with hard-bottomed shoes and damaging its bas-reliefs with oily fingers. Siem Reap has also developed at a furious rate, with hundreds of new hotels and shops encroaching on the temples, and a new airport promising to further increase visitor numbers. Over the next decade, the population of Siem Reap is expected to double to a quarter million.
Approximately 100 kilometers northwest of Siem Reap, the conservation team at Banteay Chhmar is making sure to learn from mistakes made at Angkor Wat. GHF’s vision is to conserve the site as a partial ruin with low-impact, safe visitor access via suspended cable platforms over the fallen structures, along with selective interventions for high-risk structures, bas reliefs and towers. This means employing Preservation By Design®, GHF’s integrated conservation methodology that combines long-range planning, conservation science, community engagement, and monitoring and evaluation to ensure site sustainability.
The future of Angkor Wat, meanwhile, remains uncertain. But until a master plan is developed to regulate visitation and protect the temples, conservationists will continue to point to it to exemplify the dangers of mass tourism.
Click here to explore Angkor on Global Heritage Network (GHN).