By Abby Ott
Tourism can be tricky. Every now and then a small area can absolutely boom and affect a whole country, all in a short amount of time. Siem Reap, Cambodia, is a blatant example of extreme growth in tourism.
Angkor Wat, an ancient city now in ruins, is responsible for the increase of tourism in Cambodia. For years outsiders thought of the city as a myth until a French nationalist discovered it in 1860 and began to do research on the ruins. It was revealed that at one time the Khmer empire controlled most of Southeast Asia. The vastness and mystery of the Angkor Wat temples have drawn tourists to Cambodia and, as a result, the country is heavily dependent upon the attraction.
“Few countries’ popular images are as linked to a historic treasure as Cambodia’s is to Angkor,” said Christopher R. Cox in “Asia’s Last Edens,” published in the July issue of Condé Nast Traveler. His article about the area illuminates Angkor’s “meteoric rise from ruin to rock star.” A timeline spread across the magazine pages stated that in 2003, a U.N. report listed Cambodia as one of only four developing countries with an annual income from tourism exceeding $100 million. In 2009, 70 percent of tourists who visited Cambodia made their way to Angkor. The town of Siem Reap went from having 68 hotels to 118 hotels in only five years.
Before I ventured to Cambodia, I knew I wanted to visit Angkor because it is a rare gem. I read about the majesty of it, the roots of large trees engulfing the ruins and the monks that meditated in the depths of the temples. When researching, I also found information about the damage the mass amounts of tourists are doing to the site.
Sure, tourists visiting Angkor Wat is great for the economy of Cambodia. Although the country’s economy is almost entirely reliant upon the artifact, I question what measures Cambodians are willing to take in order to preserve the treasure itself. The heavy amount of tourism will most certainly have a negative affect on the temples. While there are some restricted areas, the site is not intensely monitored. Most of the ruins are left open, and tourists are allowed to crawl up and down small stairs and narrow passageways. When I visited Angkor in the summer of 2009, I was amazed about the freedom tourists were given. The “do not touch” signs are few and far between.
“It has survived the collapse of the sophisticated civilization that built it, centuries of consumption by the suffocating jungle and the nihilism of the Khmer Rouge, who beheaded its stone Buddhas and used its walls for target practice,” said Justine Smith of The Observer. “Now, Cambodia’s awe-inspiring Angkor Wat complex is facing the biggest threat in a millennium — the fastest-growing tourist onslaught of any World Heritage site, which conservationists warn is already damaging its treasures irreparably.”
Officials in charge at Angkor say they are concerned with the toll tourism is taking on the site, but in order for the temples to be salvaged, dramatic measures need to be taken.
“Tourism is already out of control, and unless the Cambodian government takes some pretty radical action to rein it in now, much of Angkor’s magic and heritage could be lost forever,” John Stubbs stated in Smith’s article. Stubbs has spent multiple years at Angkor working alongside the New York-based World Monuments Fund.
Angkor Wat is a treasure, and it should be treated like one. Although renovating and preserving Angkor could negatively affect the country for a short amount of time, the possible long-term damage to the temples as a result of tourism will be ultimately harmful.
When traveling, be mindful of the sanctity present in the area where you are visiting. Do not be a typical inconsiderate tourist, but realize the value that the prized possessions present in every society.