Ticket sales to the Angkor temples are down. An Angkor Enterprise report has revealed that ticket sales to the Angkor Archaeological Park dropped by more than 11 per cent from the same period last year.
Prime Minister Hun Sen isn’t concerned. He told journalists that declining ticket sales at the complex wasn’t a problem – in fact, it indicates that Cambodia’s efforts to diversify tourism away from the Angkor complex have been successful, as more tourists are visiting other parts of Cambodia.
“We cannot look at just one tree – we have to look at the whole forest. We must focus on making Cambodia a more attractive destination,” he said.
Yet it bears taking a closer look at this particular tree.
Angkor Wat is no run-of-the-mill tourist destination. It is a Unesco World Heritage Site of immense cultural, religious and historic significance.
And despite the prime minister’s talk of diversification, it remains Cambodia’s most visited attraction.
According to the Ministry of Tourism, of the 3.3 million international tourists that visited Cambodia in the first six months of this year, more than one-third (1.2 million) visited Siem Reap province.
Even if more tourists are visiting Koh Rong or Mondulkiri provinces, a staggering number still visit Siem Reap and Angkor Wat.
Tourism has taken a heavy toll on the temple complex.
This year, Responsible Travel released a map documenting more than 90 destinations in 60 countries suffering from the strain of overtourism.
Angkor Wat is on that map, and for good reason.
Fewer tourists may have visited Angkor Wat this year than last, but overtourism still threatens its very foundations.
Warning bells have been sounding for years.
More than 10 years ago, the World Bank warned that temples such as Bayon were sinking into their foun-dations as nearby hotels drained underground reservoirs.
In her 2013 book Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism, journalist Elizabeth Becker called Cambodia “a model of tourism gone wrong”, arguing that “the splendid sacred spaces [of Angkor] are lost in a scrum of foreigners”.
Two years ago, the Apsara National Authority instituted a limit of 300 people at the top of Phnom Bakheng because the number of sunset-seekers threatened to damage the temple there.
While a good start, this came nowhere close to stemming the tide of overtourism that threatens the entire temple complex.
Temple steps are slippery because of the many tourists who have walked them. Bas-reliefs are worn down by the number of tourists who have touched them.
Siem Reap’s water shortages are close to causing irreparable damage too. During this year’s drought, Angkor Wat’s moat lost more than 10 million litres of water, the equivalent of four Olympic-sized swimming pools.
This water loss threatened the temple’s foundations and structural integrity.
Notably, this drought didn’t seem to affect Siem Reap’s hotels, which continue to draw heavily from the province’s water table.
Yet as Becker points out, the gov-ernment has not begun to measure how much water the hospitality industry sucks out of the ground, much less do anything to stop it.
Neighbouring countries serve as cautionary tales about the damaging effects of overtourism.
Last year, Thai authorities banned tourists from visiting Ko Phi Phi Leh after pollution, litter and sunscreen from thousands of day trippers caused immense environmental destruction to the island.
In the Philippines, the government set a limit on the number of tourists allowed to visit El Nido, Palawan, and banned tourists from Boracay for six months.
The Cambodian government should take note – if tourism sites are not well regulated and managed, overtourism can degrade them to a point where they cannot remain open to visitors.
So what should be done to protect Angkor Wat from meeting a similar fate to Ko Phi Phi Leh or Boracay?
First, the government should regulate the circulation of tourists, limiting the number of tourists allowed to visit Angkor Wat and the entire Angkor Archaeological Park at once.
Existing rules limiting the number of tourists permitted in certain sections of Angkor Wat or Phnom Bakheng do not go far enough.
Peru has introduced daily limits on the number of visitors allowed to visit Machu Picchu – Cambodia should consider similar restrictions.
Once the tourists have entered the park, more needs to be done to ensure they don’t cause damage to its temples.
Wooden stairs have been constructed at some temples – more such stairs would help to preserve the temple stones. Bas-reliefs should be protected from touch by glass.
Lastly, the government needs to better regulate the hospitality industry’s water use – and enforce these regulations.
Geoscientists and historians now believe that the city of Angkor Wat collapsed because of prolonged drought followed by intense monsoon rains, which damaged its infrastructure.
It would be tragic for Angkor Wat’s physical infrastructure to again collapse because of tourism’s demands on Siem Reap’s water table.
Cambodians are rightfully proud of the history and architecture of Angkor Wat and the other Angkor temples.
To protect this invaluable cultural heritage, the government must do more to regulate the flow of tourists and protect against overtourism.
Allison Jane Smith is a freelance writer and an editor at Future Forum, an independent Cambodian public policy think tank.