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Cambodia, the country that got tourism ‘all wrong’

7 Angkor wat tourist

Elizabeth Becker is one of the best-known foreign correspondents to have reported from Cambodia, having interviewed Pol Pot during the Khmer Rouge years. Her latest novel investigates the wrongs of the tourist industry, and particularly Cambodia’s approach to Angkor Wat. Claire Knox spoke with her.

Elizabeth Becker first saw the formidable, lotus spires of Angkor Wat in 1974, through high powered binoculars perched on the roof of the now opulent Raffles Grand Hotel D’Angkor - at that time it was used as the military headquarters of the Khmer Republic Army. Still, the building was laced with regal memories: Charlie Chaplin and Charles De Gaulle were once guests, and the late King Father Sihanouk had hosted Jacqueline Kennedy at the art deco hotel (they say she danced through the grounds in an emerald silk dress).

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Journalist and author Elizabeth Becker won an Overseas Press Club citation for her coverage of the Cambodian genocide in 1978. Her books have translated into French and Khmer. Photo Supplied

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Becker, a best-selling author famed for her investigation of the Khmer Rouge, When the War is Over, is also one of the most well-know foreign correspondents to have reported from Cambodia throughout the 1970s. Starting out as a 25-year-old, a self-described ‘neophyte’ stringer in Phnom Penh in 1972, she soon was reporting on the war for The Washington Post, and in later years became the senior foreign editor at National Public Radio and then Washington correspondent for The New York Times.

Becker’s first actual visit to the Angkor complex was in 1978, when she was one of two journalists to visit Cambodia and meet Pol Pot (she has described the dictator in the hours long interview as “elegant”, “aloof” and “ranting”.) A third  foreigner, British academic Malcolm Caldwell, was murdered by soldiers while he slept in a government guest house.

Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism, Beckers latest work, is an in-depth investigation and exposé of the travel industry. In the chapter devoted to Cambodia (a country who “got it wrong”) she remembers her friend and colleague, Dith Pran (a former temple guide and inspiration for the Cambodian fixer in The Killing Fields) who told tales of Angkor.

The temples, a Khmer Rouge base, “were off limits to those of us living on the government side. That made them even more beautiful…Phnom Penh markets still sold the remaining temple rubbings of the bas reliefs from Angkor Wat…”

“Becker, you have to see the sun set over Angkor,” Pran said.

She has now visited Angkor almost a dozen times, taking her daughter, Lily. The management of tourism at the complex and the mass development of Siem Reap, which she argues is literally sinking – a result of swathes of hotels depleting its water table - embodies, in her book, the government corruption and cronyism endemic in Cambodia.

“I think the turning point was in 2009 when I could barely move because of the crowds. It was impossible to recognise the majesty and splendour of the buildings. Clearly, crowd control is needed - there are far too many trampling the temples,” she told 7Days this week.

Overbooked is split into six sections looking at distinct areas of the industry: the “business”, cultural tourism (France, Venice and Cambodia), consumer tourism (Dubai and ‘super’ cruises), nature tourism (Zambia, Costa Rica and Sri Lanka), the “new giant” (China) and “the old giant” (the US).

The book was a five year work in progress and its first chapter is laden with some sobering facts and figures on the monolithic sector: in 2007 it contributed $7 trillion to the world economy and was the biggest employer, with nearly 250 million associated jobs; last year 1 billion trips were taken worldwide, an annual increase of six per cent a year (in gross economic power in the same realm as oil, energy and finance); according to the ILO one in ten people are employed by tourism; and if frequent flyer miles were a currency, it would be one of the most valuable in the world.

And yet tourism is the “stealth industry of the twenty-first century. Few politicians, government leaders, foreign affairs pundits or economic experts consider the industry an important subject, ” she reveals.

An interview with a top official in the French Ministry of Agriculture during her days as international economics correspondent at the Times sparked the idea for the book.

“I couldn’t help but notice that tourism was a growing global business. Increasingly, countries were depending on tourism to boost their economies but you didn’t that reflected in news coverage…[the minister] told me that many decisions about farming were made with tourism in mind.”

Much of the blame, she opines, lies in the relationship between the media and the travel industry and the cycle of “freebies” and favourable reviews.

She narrates the history of the iconic Frommer guides, from former G.I. Arthur Frommers’ original Europe on $5 a Day: “…his style of providing the mundane details of where to stay and what to eat with an overlay of rhapsodic descriptions of the delights of travel became the hallmark of travel writing in the modern age.”

“Too many travel writers accept free trips and then write up their stories without disclosing that the hotel and restaurants they write about gave them free rooms and meals and that they didn’t pay for their airfare. Can you imagine if political parties paid journalists to cover their events. There would be a huge uproar. Secondly, travel writing never offers criticism. They only write about the places they like, their favourite bistros and beaches, without a word of displeasure. Again, imagine if film critics only wrote about the movies they enjoyed. One travel editor told me she only published lists of the ten best, never the ten worst,” Becker said this week.

While she praises the French Riviera and the cloud forest nature reserves of Costa Rica as models of sustainable tourism, Becker is scathing of the management of the industry in the Kingdom, and its government.

She describes the 1993 UNTAC elections in the book: “They supervised a democratic election, but the losers threatened civil war if they weren’t included in the government. The U.N. gave into their demands and anointed a joint government that included some brilliant officials, some incompetent officials and many, many corrupt officials, all working in an atmosphere of mistrust.”

Roland Eng, former ambassador to the US and the first tourism minister, appointed in 1993, is interviewed and Becker praises his early work in the restoration of Angkor. But “following ministers lacked his vision and credentials, in a 1997 coup d’etat Hun Sen took over…in the tourism field that meant an increase in cronyism and corruption.”

“Tourism brings in $2 billion each year, but it enriches Cambodia’s elite rather than helping the underprivileged.”

At the Angkor complex, where tourism has been pushed from 176,617 in 1994 to 694,700 visitors during just the first quarter of this year (2012 saw 2.06 million foreign visitors climbing its crumbling steps), there is no cap on visitors.

Also of great concern, she says, is that Siem Reap does not have a modern water and waste system to accommodate these tourists. As the water table is drained by hotels drilling into aquifers so that “tourists can flush toilets”, 54 of the Bayon’s towers have started sinking into the ground.

“The government has made no attempt to finger the culprits who are pumping or drilling for water or measure how much water is being sucked out of the ground,” she writes.

“The government is allowing the temples to be overwhelmed for the short-term goal of multiplying the number of tourists and profits. Cambodian archaeologists like Son Soubert have warned for years of the danger posed by the explosion of hotels and guest houses in Siem Reap,” she later said.

Tourism in Phnom Penh is condemned too: she provides an in depth look at how sex tourism has manifested (“too few arrests, too few prosecutions, too few imprisonments”), and the “genocide tourism” of S-21 (500 tourists a day) and Choeung Ek, or The Killing Fields.

“There is a thin line between memorialization and manipulation when creating museums to honour the victims of genocide or a mass attack…inside [Tuol Sleng] the museum breaks the cardinal rule of respect for the victims.

Haunting photographs are hung throughout, but most of the victims are left anonymous – no names and no stories about their lives and deaths even though the information has been available for decades. Instead, the accent is on the barbarity of the Khmer Rouge and how they tortured these people.” At the Killing Fields’ stupa of 8985 skulls, “these skeletons were never given the religious rites and cremation required by the Buddhist faith, instead they are on permanent display…It does not feel like a sacred space but one of utter desecration.”

Becker clearly fell in love with the landscape and people of this country (she refers to vivid, green rice fields and swaying palms) and the Cambodia chapter is not all negative. She’s full of praise for the restoration of Phnom Penh’s Raffles le Royale (during the war she lived on the top floor with a fan and cold water only for around $100 a month) and its Siem Reap sister.

“I consider it a historic treasure…it’s home to me. During the war it was our fortress. The manager and staff were like family.”

While she writes “there is nothing hidden” about the epidemic of land evictions, the destruction of colonial and New Khmer architecture, the rampant development of coastal areas like Sihanoukville, and references “Scambodia”: the proliferation of phony orphanage tourism, she quotes Daniella Papi, the founder of PEPY tours (who offer bicycle tours to meet their partners working on health or education projects in villages), as an example of a responsible attitutude to tourism.

“Cambodian culture is glorious…We’re reminded of that today with the success of Season of Cambodia. With the right policies and a government dedicated to following those policies, Cambodian tourism can become sustainable and help the local people”.

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