When UNESCO designated Angkor a World Heritage site in 1992, it aimed to protect the area –- once the capital of the Khmer empire -- from encroaching development. Cambodia was just emerging from decades of political strife during which restoration work had halted, and with the UNESCO designation the emphasis shifted back to conservation. But now, fifteen years later, Angkor has other problems. It's become a zoo.
In the early 1990s, Angkor drew a few thousand people a year. Today, a sign in Siem Reap, the town that borders the park, boasts that Angkor has reached the two million mark. Tour buses -- many of them labeled in Chinese and Korean, suggesting the boom is exacerbated by development in Cambodia's Asian neighbors -- clot the road outside the flagship temple of Angkor Wat. I witnessed people climbing temple facades to stage vanity shots. In some temples, carvings on the walls are shiny from touching (the apsaras' breasts are a particularly popular target). Some tourists go one step further and buy a ceramic pot or antique beads – fueling the looting of valuable sites. According to Heritage Watch, an organization that monitors the Cambodian trade in artifacts, nearly 20 percent of visitors to the country purchase an antiquity during their stay.
Even conscientious tourists leave their mark. As massive hotels with swimming pools sprout around the park, the water table is suffering. Cheaper guesthouses reportedly dump sewage directly into the Siem Reap River. In the chaos of rapid development, real estate ventures aren’t always carefully vetted; it appears a South Korean company started on a golf course inside the park before Cambodian authorities intervened. And while tourism dollars are benefiting many local residents, development is hardly evenly distributed. Siem Reap is thriving, its property values skyrocketing. But the surrounding area still contains some of the poorest villages in Cambodia.
These issues aren’t just a problem at Angkor, of course. Earlier this year, Christian Manhart of the World Heritage Center, which administers the World Heritage Fund, admitted to the London Telegraph that "conservation versus tourism has been an issue for a long time. Before, we slightly ignored it and it was a big, big problem for many sites.” Today, the World Heritage program has a sustainable tourism program. But many sites were designated for protection before these mechanisms were put into place. Now, the challenge is to stave off future damage.
So what can be done? The Cambodian government is apparently considering restricting access to certain temples. But a holistic approach that addresses the boom in Siem Reap is needed as well. Heritage Watch carries out campaigns to educate locals and tourists alike about looting and promotes sustainable tourism in Siem Reap and beyond. The organization also certifies local businesses as "heritage-friendly" -- a designation that indicates clean environmental policies, support for the local economy, and contributions toward preservation.
Such efforts are critical to the scattering of temples that still remain relatively untouched. A hundred miles north of Siem Reap lies Koh Ker, at one point the Angkorian capital. Because of their distance from other tourist attractions, Koh Ker's unrestored temples and towers get just a few dozen visitors a day.
That will soon change. With a new road in place, the drive from Siem Reap to Koh Ker is now down to two hours – short enough for tour buses to travel there and back in a day. Hopefully this time around the tourism the site attracts will be sustainable.