Angkor Wat: Between Mass Tourism and Heritage Conservation

Originally aired on Channel NewsAsia on March 5, 2018

Angkor Wat is considered as one of the greatest cultural heritage sites in Southeast Asia, with millions of tourists visiting the ancient temple ruins each year. But how do officials balance mass tourism with conservation? And could this serve as a role model for other heritage sites in the region? We went there to find the answer.

TRANSCRIPT

A new day over Angkor Wat, one of the largest ancient temples in the world.

Built around 900 years ago, it has seen the rise and fall of the Khmer Empire and now stands as a symbol for modern day Cambodia.

But its popularity as a tourist destination means it's a marvel you won't be able to enjoy in quiet isolation. 

About 5 million people visit Angkor Wat and its surrounding grounds every year, and though it may seem over-crowded, park officials disagree.

They say in this area, measuring some 400 square kilometres, there’s still plenty of space to move around.

SOK SANGVAR; Deputy Director General, Authority for the Protection of the Site and Management of the Region of Angkor (APSARA):
"I think we’re very far from the ceiling, from the maximum. I think, once again, it’s really about how you move people around. We’re only 5 million [visitors] and so many space actually in [around] here, so many things you can visit. So we are still full of potential, still! Either you can spend time in the temples, or you can spend time with the villagers in the park."

Tourism plays a key role in Cambodia’s economy. It contributes 12 per cent to the country’s GDP,
and revenue from it amounts to some 4 billion US dollars. Angkor Wat alone pulled in more than a hundred-million in tourist dollars last year.

SAKSITH SAIYASOMBUT; ANGKOR WAT, CAMBODIA:
"It’s been 25 years since and its surrounding areas have been designated as an UNESCO World Heritage site. Now, managing the millions of tourists that are coming here is just one part of the job. The other are the conservation efforts, that is not only much sought after here in Cambodia but also beyond its borders in ASEAN."

LONG KOSAL; Spokesman, Authority for the Protection of the Site and Management of the Region of Angkor (APSARA):
"In ASEAN, we can say proudly that we are leading in stone conservation, as well as brick conservation - because why? Because our temples are made of stone and brick. And we have a lot of Asian friends coming over to request us to share our experience."

Fellow ASEAN members such as Indonesia and Thailand have worked together with Angkor Park officials to restore and maintain the ancient religious sites in their own countries. 

One such project is along the Thai-Cambodian border: After their dispute over territory was resolved in 2013, both countries are cooperating on the conservation of temples - such as Preah Vihear - on both sides of the border.

Requests for restoration help have also come from further afield - for example, Syria whose many historic sites have been damaged in the civil war.

As the sun sets another day over Angkor Wat, there’s no let-up in its popularity and importance to Cambodia.

Its people are working hard to ensure that its heritage will remain for future generations to admire - even if you have to share it with others.

Saksith Saiyasombut, Channel NewsAsia, Angkor Wat, Cambodia