Angkor: How can a UNESCO site keep tourist temple raiders in check?

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Image credit: Angkor Wat (Workbook Stock/Thomas Kokta/Getty Images)

Fri Mar 5, 2010
By Sarah Dowdey
Discovery News

It only takes a quick Google image search to understand why Angkor, the Khmer empire's ancient seat, makes plenty of "must-see" travel lists. Its ruined temple complexes pop out through the forests, and its sprawling reservoirs offer a testament to the city's impressive engineering.

When I podcasted on Angkor a while back, my co-host and I talked a bit about the possible role of environmental degradation in the city's downfall. Deforestation may have caused silting, something that could damage the complex waterworks that kept the city running so efficiently.

Another hypothesis, this one from National Geographic's Richard Stone, centers more on plain old environmental bad luck: an El NiƱo cycle beginning exactly when the delicate water management system was showing its age. Deprived of the mechanical wizardry that kept dramatic seasonal changes in check, the city may not have been equipped to face a long dry period.

But since Angkor's fall could have had as much to do with war, religion or rivalry among feuding Khmer royal offspring, I'll focus here on the present-day site's environmental woes. The ruined complex, situated near Siem Reap, has been one of Cambodia's tourist cornerstones since the country opened as a safe destination after years of war and internal strife.

And while Angkor has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1992, and spent 12 years on the group's "threatened" list, such a designation requires some trade-offs. With international protection comes international exposure and a flood of new visitors. According to the non-governmental organization Heritage Watch, Angkor saw 7600 visitors in 1993; by 2006, the number was 1.6 million; by the time 2010 is up, the complex will likely draw 3 million. Tourists of course bring in money for the developing country, as well as help assure a certain degree of protection for cultural sites. But they also walk everywhere. They touch things. They require hotels, resorts and transportation. The development of Siem Reap may even be sucking Angkor dry, drawing out its groundwater and weakening the temples' foundations.

Fortunately, groups like Heritage Watch are advocating for a more sustainable type of tourism. Working with the Cambodian government, they've started a "heritage friendly tourism campaign" to save antiquities, discourage looters and encourage visitors to fan out, spread their wealth and take a little heat off of Angkor.


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