An international heritage conservancy has warned that the Angkor Wat temple complex faces “critical” threats in the form of heavy traffic and inefficient conservation techniques.
A report released by the Global Heritage Fund also said the fact that many tourism-related businesses were foreign-owned made it difficult for Siem Reap residents to benefit economically from the temples.
“Hundreds of thousands of visitors climb over the ruins of Angkor every year causing heavy deterioration of original Khmer stonework,” says the report, which is titled “Saving Our Heritage: Safeguarding Cultural Sites Around the World”.
According to the report, the number of visitors to Angkor Wat has increased by 188 percent since 2000, from 840,000 to 2,420,000 in 2009.
An Apsara Authority official said last week that Angkor Wat had seen a 24-percent increase in foreign tourists in the first nine months of 2010 compared with the same period last year.
“Mass tourism is overrunning the fragile archaeology site, with millions every year climbing unabated on the monuments,” said GHF Executive Director Jeff Morgan.
The report also says that the temples have been threatened by rapid development in Siem Reap, and that Bayon temple has already borne the brunt of this trend.
“The nearby sprawl of hotels and restaurants is sapping the region’s local aquifer, which has caused the Bayon Temple’s 54 towers to sink into the ground,” it states.
Morgan said that while the Apsara Authority, the government body tasked with managing the temple complex, and UNESCO had taken positive steps towards ensuring the temples were maintained, they did not have a presence at many heritage sites elsewhere in the country.
“Other provinces have little support for heritage preservation [in a situation] typical of most developing countries,” Morgan said.
Mao Loa, director of the Apsara Authority’s Department of Monuments and Preventive Archaeology at the Angkor Wat temple complex, said she had not seen the report, but that the body would be receptive to feedback on the management of the complex.
“We always wait to see constructive criticisms; we need them to raise straight points,” she said.
She agreed that more conservation efforts were needed outside Angkor Wat. In 2004, she said, Apsara expanded from five departments to 14 in a bid to expand its reach, but some pressing conservation issues remain unaddressed.
Despite rapid development fuelled by a rising number of visitors, much tourism-related revenue – which the report pegged at US$436 million last year – is not going to locals, the report states.
“The local population is not benefiting due to exclusive concession at Angkor and high concentration of hotels in foreign ownership leading to leakages,” Morgan said.
“One stark example: There are 360 Koreans living in Siem Reap to manage all the Korean business. Little stays in the province. Most of the good hotels are Korean or Thai, or foreign.… In fact, Siem Reap is still one of the poorest provinces in Cambodia.”
The report also includes a case study of Banteay Chhmar temple in Banteay Meanchey province, which is lauded as a model for other countries.
In the 1990s, the site was a target of looters, and 25 square metres of bas-reliefs were stolen, according to the report. In 2007, the GHF began a restoration project led by the South Asian Conservation and Restoration Agency.
The report notes that conservation training at the site is being conducted “in the Khmer language by Khmers for Khmers”, thus making it a “landmark in the sustainable conservation process”.
John Sanday, GHF Field Director for the Banteay Chhmar Conservation Training Project, said the knowledge of Cambodian craftsmen was as important as his “technical conservation knowledge” in maintaining the site. ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY RANN REUY