Mon, Feb 26, 2007 - Page 5 News List

Tourism threatens UN World Heritage site in Cambodia

THE OBSERVER , SIEM REAP, CAMBODIA

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.

Now, Cambodia's Angkor Wat complex is facing the biggest threat in a millennium -- the fastest-growing tourist onslaught of any UNESCO World Heritage site, which conservationists warn is already damaging its treasures irreparably.

In 1993, after Angkor was added to UNESCO's World Heritage List, just 7,650 intrepid visitors ventured to the site. Last year Sokimex, the oil company controversially granted the entrance concession on behalf of the government's Apsara Angkor management, sold almost 900,000 tickets worth US$25 million.

Three million visitors are expected in 2010.

Teruo Jinnai, UNESCO's top official at Angkor, said: "We are very concerned by this unprecedented, uncontrolled acceleration, which is damaging the monuments and the local environment. Preservation of the park for future generations has to be the number one priority, over and above commercial exploitation, which is mainly benefiting foreign interests instead of the local population."

Kerya Chau Sun, director of tourism at Angkor, said: "We are finalizing regulations for controlling visitors. We will train guards to watch the temples and educate visitors to help us protect the monuments."

However, John Stubbs, who has spent 15 years working at Angkor with the New York-based World Monuments Fund, said: "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."

The five-tiered Phnom Bakheng hilltop temple, one of the most significant relics of the ancient Khmer civilization, is one of the most endangered of the park's 40- plus monuments.

More than 3,000 tourists clamber up narrow flights of stone stairs every evening, manhandling sandstone carvings as they jostle for a sunset view of Angkor Wat.

"It simply cannot survive this daily assault. Unless it is completely closed off for essential repairs, Phnom Bakheng will suffer critical damage," Stubbs said.

The World Bank warns that other temples, including the spectacular Bayon with four-faced Buddhas carved on its 54 towers, are sinking into their sandy foundations as the hospitality industry drains underground water reservoirs.

Meanwhile, the site's serenity is being overwhelmed by crass commercialization, from the Las Vegas-style shopping malls to a gaudy Angkor theme park just outside the complex.

In May a golf course opens, the second water-guzzling 18-holer to be built in two years within four miles of the park.

But some say visiting Angkor Wat can also be done in a responsible way.

Jarrod Kyte, UK manager of Gecko's Adventures, which offers an eco-tour to clean up rubbish at the site, said: "We train local guides to make sure our clients know exactly how to dress and behave and we use locally owned restaurants and hotels."

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