Ever since its designation as a UNESCO heritage site in 1992, the Angkor Archaeological Park has been a tourism magnet for the Kingdom.
In the high season, it isn’t uncommon to see tuk-tuks, private taxis and busloads of tourists flooding the temple complex, causing traffic jams and clogging up the narrow streets.
But concerns have also been raised about the hordes of tourists causing elevated pollution levels at the park, acid rain and degradation of the ancient temples.
While the use of electric vehicles has been attempted in the past - albeit with little success – a French company is now having another go at it.
BluE-Mobility, a subsidiary of French conglomerate Bollore Group, is looking to use sky blue, beach buggy-like electric cars to ferry tourists around the complex, after signing a MoU with Apsara Authority, the organisation tasked with preservation and management of the heritage site.
Vincent Calzaroni, chief executive of BluE-Mobility, said the cars, which are currently being used for ride-share services in France, will also be used at other historical sites in Rome and La Rochelle in France, but that will depend on the success of initiative in Cambodia.
“If it’s obvious for everyone to drive green cars to save the planet, my idea is to promote the use of electric vehicles to save culture and historical sites,” said Calzaroni.
The cars, which were developed in France, cost about $11,180 to manufacture and can run for up to 300 kilometres on a single charge.
Calzaroni said the three-person vehicles have been built so as to be able to cope with Cambodia’s troublesome roads and intense heat.
With the service priced at $80 a day, a lot more than what tuk-tuks charge, Calzaroni said they would have to find wealthy customers to fill their cars.
“With the electric car, we will first target VIPs,” Calzaroni said.
Although the costs are high, he said there were tourists who would appreciate using an eco-friendly mode of transport, given that it helps conserve the temples and environment in the area.
Apsara has expressed concerns about the heavy influx of large buses, which they say causes vibrations that affect the structural integrity of the more than 800-year-old temples.
While he wasn’t privy to specific details of BluE-Mobility’s plans, Long Kosal, spokesman for the Apsara Authority, said embracing new technology could help tackle acid rain and pollution problems, and also help reduce the number of large buses that cause vibrations and affect the structural integrity of the temples.
“The electric car is one of the alternatives and we are not opposed to using it,” he said.
But Apsara’s go-ahead is not the only hurdle BluE-Mobility faces, given that in the past tuk-tuk drivers have been opposed to Apsara allowing other electric alternatives to run in the complex.
When 7Makara, an electric vehicle project run by Apsara and funded by Chinese investors, was launched in 2008, tensions came to the fore when tuk-tuk drivers protested the new service after rumours circulated that the electric cars were going to replace tuk-tuks at the complex.
But, Kosal says that any new technology will not be a replacement for existing modes of transport in the complex.
“We are only adding a new alternative that can be used at the Angkor temples,” he added.
While there have been no protests against BluE-Mobility’s entry into the park, Hing Channary, president of Siem Reap’s tuk-tuk association, said that Apsara needs to maintain an even playing field and not play favourites.
“The tourists and customers should be able to make a choice,” he said.
“If they start selling [the electric car service] with the admission tickets then we will protest.”
According to Channary, companies providing such services have in the past tried to block tuk-tuk drivers from operating in the park.
“I don’t want someone to capitalise the market,” he said. “It is not right.”
Despite tuk-tuk drivers’ apprehensions over the new entrant in the market, BluE-Mobility will still have its task cut out trying to find customers for the high-priced car service.
Ho Vandy, co-chair of the government-private sector working group, said given that 70 to 80 per cent of the tourists entering the complex do so through tour operators, BluE-Mobility would have to strike a deal with operators to get customers.
“Yes, there is a high level of tourists coming to Angkor Wat and if they pay for this it will be good,” Vandy said.
However, he said Apsara needs to ensure that all stakeholders are accepting of the new service and formulate a “win-win situation.”