Tourist jungle grows over Angkor Wat

Visitors are flocking to the ancient ruins in record numbers, straining the area's weak infrastructure.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

The ancient ruins of Angkor Wat survived centuries lost in the jungle and decades of civil war. But can they survive all the tourists?

Some of those charged with protecting the temples – one of the most important archaeological sites in South-East Asia – are no longer so sure.

"We don't have enough infrastructure to welcome mass tourism," says Tep Vattho, who heads the development department of APSARA, the government agency entrusted with managing the Angkor Archeological Park. "We are not ready. If 1 million come a year, the environment will be destroyed very quickly."

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Mass tourism has already arrived at Siem Reap, the province and gateway town for the temples. All told this year, tourism officials are expecting not 1 million tourists – about the number that visited last year, breaking all records – but twice that, according to Siem Reap's Governor Sou Phirin. As many as 500,000 are expected between November and December alone, when Cambodia kicks off a World Culture Expo, a 100 day extravaganza expected to garner worldwide media attention.

Drawing that many visitors will be an amazing feat for a nation that was largely spurned by Western tourists until several years after the 1998 conclusion of a decades-long civil war. But it may well strain the city to the breaking point.

Already, fleets of tour buses and an army of moto-taxis clog the narrow roads. In Angkor Park, so many pairs of feet trod every day on ancient stone walkways that the government is considering requiring visitors to wear plastic slippers.

The Cambodian population in Siem Reap is exploding, with new arrivals driving up the local population by 50 percent over the past three years, from 100,000 in 2002, to 150,000 this year. Chaotic, ramshackle encampments line the road leading out of town, housing thousands of arrivals looking for work in the hotels and construction trades.

"It's bad because it's a small province, and a small town," says Chhouk Vanchhom, bureau chief for the town's tourism department. "There are too many people, and it's difficult to supply and feed them."

The impact of the tourist boom is apparent downtown, where hotels have sprouted up like mushrooms. The town's infrastructure is beginning to buckle. During the dry season, raw sewage clogs the ancient irrigation web used to water the rice fields.

"Some hotels put sewage in the river and it smells," says Tep Vattho. "There are squatters along the banks."

Tourists and new arrivals are drawing down the area's natural water table, leading some to worry that could eventually cause the earth beneath the mighty temples of Angkor to collapse into depleted underground water pockets.

Government officials are frantically rushing to catch up. In recent months, they have launched a number of initiatives aimed at averting disaster – including new road projects, a 20-hectare reservoir, a beautification plan, and a new electricity agreement with Thailand. The French are financing a $5 million wastewater plant, and the government is seeking funds from the Asian Development Bank to build another.

But money is always in short supply in this impoverished nation, and officials say the projects are just a start of what's needed, especially if tourism continues to grow at its current rate.

Donors ponied up about $50 million between 1993 and 2003 to restore the temples after UNESCO designated them World Heritage Sites, says Nao Hayashi-Deni, a cultural program official at UNESCO in Phnom Penh.

And Siem Reap is "considered a success story compared to other worldwide heritage sites. But "donors tend to invest money in the temples themselves because it's more visible and easier to showcase their activities," she says.

In 2003, UNESCO voted to set up a committee on sustainable tourism, complete with a panel experts to evaluate the impact of building plans on the area. But so far, no one has provided funding to hire the experts.

The government seems reluctant to interfere in the growth; Siem Reap is one of its few cash cows. In 2004, international tourists spent $97 million in Siem Reap, of which more than two-thirds stayed in the province, according to a 2005 study financed by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). More than 5,000 people work in hotels alone, and overall tourism created about 29,400 jobs.

Without any intervention, the number of visitors could rise to more than 4.3 million in 2020. About 87 hotels are now operating. More than 150 are planned. In the past two years alone, property values along Rt. 6 have tripled – from $300 a square meter to $900 a square meter, according to city officials.

Some planners fear the continued growth of "mass tourism" is not sustainable. JICA's warns that, as it continues, the town is becoming even less attractive to the moneyed, discriminating tourists who could provide Siem Reap with a stable future.

"The town itself is neither attractive nor comfortable enough for nongroup tourists to move around by themselves," explains the JICA study.

So rather than control the tourism, local officials are trying to spruce the town up.

Siem Reap inaugurated a new French-funded international airport early this month. Recently the government finished a road that loops in front of the airport, to Rte. 6, and around to the temples. The new road creates an additional path to the temples and will help mitigate traffic. City officials are also hoping to clean up the banks of the Siem Reap River.

"We cannot stop the mass tourists and we still need them," Tep Vattho says. "But we need to improve the appearance of the town. If we can send men into outer space, surely we can solve this problem."

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