Award-winning American journalist and author Elizabeth Becker began her career in Cambodia in 1972 as a war correspondent. Best known for her books When the War was Over (1986) on the Khmer Rouge and Cambodia, and Overbooked: the Global Business of Travel and Tourism (2013), she arrived in Siem Reap this week for the UNWTO and UNESCO World Conference on Tourism and Culture: Building a New Partnership. Post Weekend caught up with her on day one of the conference.
You returned to moderate a session on how well-managed tourism can be a driver in safeguarding and promoting culture while nurturing a sense of pride in communities. How did that come about?
nswer: After I published my book Overbooked, which talks about this whole issue of culture, global tourism and the explosion of tourism, the UNWTO asked me to moderate. The point is to get the culture people talking to the tourism people … getting everyone talking about the issues that have to be solved, the huge problems involved, and to come up with solutions, and not just talk about how great everything is.
Safeguarding culture and promoting culture are often at odds, aren’t they?
When you talk about cultural tourism, you can’t just talk about literature, dance, music. You need to talk about sewers, crowd control, and the nitty-gritty as well. A lot of times governments and tourist boards talk about the great successes and win-win, and there is rarely in this world a win-win. There is a downside with every upside. Also transparency issues – they like to say: “This helps the local economy.” Prove that. They say: “This is a major source of protecting the site.” Well, how does it protect the site? You can’t just make blanket statements. You have to have very good information, and make sure there’s some transparency involved.
Cambodia still gets excited by big tourist numbers. Do the number of visitors to Angkor needs to be restricted?
There hasn’t been a study on whether or not they can have all these hotels and have all these visitors … on the plus side, Cambodia does have international archaeologists working here, something that’s unheard of elsewhere ... There is Angkor Archaeological Park and a fence around it. [The government] did not build that huge new airport. They also know that Angkor can’t be “It” and they are diversifying. You can see what’s happened at the sites. The steps are worn down so you have to build new steps. With people walking all over the towers they’re not going to last long … you can see slowly but surely the numbers are having an effect.
You said that you thought Cambodia had got a lot of things wrong. Have things improved?
There’s been a renaissance of the living cultures and that’s very important to who Cambodians are. Cambodia has rich traditions and part of the motivation was losing them. So much was lost, but it’s being recovered and modernised, and there’s been an amazing adaptation to technology. There are fabulous videos, Rithy Pann’s movie making, Bophana, the documentation centre, dance groups, the Season of Cambodia in New York. That doesn’t happen everywhere. That’s a very good sign. When
Rithy was nominated for an Academy Award, it was really important. For most nominations, it means a producer will make more money, an actress will get better roles. This nomination meant a country had recovered its pride.
If you returned to Siem Reap in five years, what would you like to see?
There has to be transparency. They have to have real data and have to understand how tourism affects the community....I’m really glad that the super airport wasn’t built. That’s good. I hope the corruption goes down. I would love to see a quota for the number of people per day at the temples, days off for different temples, and taking those pointers off the tour guides ... I would love to see more trees. I’d love to see the Siem Reap River bigger, some environmental help up in the hills. I’d love to see fewer buses and more walking spaces, more clean electric transportation. But it’s going to take time. I just want to see it going in the right direction. And I’m not sure it is. I think it’s one step here, one step there, one step back. But then I think what has happened to some of Cambodia’s neighbours. You have to put it in context. Cambodia has done very well.
Interview by Lara Dunston