Stopping Angkor Wat being loved to death

With more than 2 million tourists having visited the Angkor Wat complex last year alone, there are growing concerns about degradation of the site.
With more than 2 million tourists having visited the Angkor Wat complex last year alone, there are growing concerns about degradation of the site. Hong Menea

Stopping Angkor Wat being loved to death

It’s often said that the problem with the Angkor Wat complex is that there are too many tourists – more than 2 million pounded the stone steps of the ancient temples last year, and concern about degradation of the sites continues to grow.

The man employed to manage tourism there, 29-year-old Sok Sangvar, the son of Deputy Prime Minister Sok An, thinks differently.

“I have heard it so many times, that there are too many people at Angkor,” Sangvar said last Sunday. “It’s not about the numbers; it’s about how you manage those numbers.”

As head of the Angkor Tourism Management Plan working group, it is his job to come up with solutions to the problems facing the site.

Those problems are documented in the plan, which was created by the Apsara Authority, UNESCO and the Cambodian and Australian governments following a request by UNESCO in 2010.

It is a long list that includes damage to monuments, environmental degradation, littering, traffic congestion, degraded pathways, visitor behaviour and a lack in benefit sharing with local people.

Sok Sangvar.
Sok Sangvar. Nicky Sullivan

The working group, headed by Sangvar and a 10-strong team of mainly former Ministry of Tourism staff members, was formed on December 27, 2013, and just celebrated its first anniversary.

Talking about his first day on the job, Sangvar, who is generally considered to be a dynamic force within the Apsara Authority, acknowledged that he had a big task ahead of him that would require some careful balancing.

“I didn’t think it was impossible, but I knew there was a long way to go,” he said. “And, of course, we talk about ‘reducing’ impacts, not stopping them, because that’s not possible unless we just keep everybody out and stop tourism altogether.”

One of the first priorities was development of a visitor code of conduct, but Sangvar also set about creating a private sector working group, in order to integrate business people’s points of view and gain their support, as well as the development of programs to ensure local communities benefited from the swelling number of visitors.

Traffic management plans are under way, including talks with manufacturers of green vehicles, and a new circuit should be launched in the next month.

Robert McCarthy, an American archaeologist working with the Japanese government’s Team for Safeguarding Angkor, said the management of tourists needed a significant overhaul.

“When you have everyone coming to the Bayon [temple] at 9am in the morning, it just doesn’t make sense,” McCarthy said.

“We need to consider how we manage individual groups against the carrying capacity of each temple. Orientation and education need to be part of the process too, and the message reinforced that this is a sacred place. That sometimes seems to get lost.”

Stéphane de Greef, a sustainable tourism consultant, agreed.

“While most people in Angkor respect existing regulations and wear clothes appropriate for visiting sacred sites, one often sees foreign and Cambodian visitors touching extremely fragile carvings, climbing on the top of crumbling temple walls to take pictures or accessing areas that are clearly indicated as off limits,” he said.

The code of conduct has already been agreed by the Apsara Authority and is set to be launched soon, with short films and handouts given to tourists as they arrive in the country. There remains much to do, however.

“I’m happy with what we’ve done in the first year,” said Sangvar. “But of course there’s a lot more to go ahead. We need to conduct more studies, more training of guides; we need better statistics; we need to learn how to better manage events; and we need to work on our communication with visitors and other stakeholders.”

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