Sunday, March 25, 2007

Development, tourist boom threaten Cambodia's Angkor Wat

Sun Mar 25, 2007
SIEM REAP, Cambodia (AFP) - Khun Sokha looks on while camera flashes pop in the pre-dawn haze, as hundreds of tourists perch along the outer wall of Cambodia's Angkor Wat waiting to catch that moment when the sun rises over the temple's distinctive towering spires.
Over the next few hours, those hundreds will multiply to thousands, largely free to wander in and out of the temple ruins, probing dark corners, climbing over fallen stones or tracing the delicate bas reliefs with their hands.
"The ancients built the temples for religious purposes, not for such crowds of tourists to climb on," says Khun Sokha, a tour guide whose job depends on the vast crowds swarming Cambodia's Angkor National Park in rising numbers each year.
"The harm is obvious. We are worried, but the people's livelihood depends on these tourists," he adds.
Like Khun Sokha, Cambodia's government is at odds over what to do with its most famous landmark.
Angkor is at the very heart of Cambodia's identity, and with nearly two million tourists coming to the country last year -- more than half of them visiting Angkor -- it is recognising the need to keep these precious ruins intact.
"The harm to the temples is unavoidable when many people walk in and out of them," says Soeung Kong, deputy director-general of the Apsara Authority which oversees Angkor's upkeep.
But at the same time, it is also hard to ignore the nearly 1.5 billion dollars in revenue that tourism brought to the impoverished country last year, forcing officials into a देलिकाते ब
"We are trying to keep that harm at a minimal level," Soeung Kong tells अफ्प Just over 7,600 visitors ventured to Angkor in 1993, when it was added to UNESCO's World Heritage List.
Since then, tourist arrivals have risen meteorically, with the government hoping for three million visitors to Cambodia by 2010।The intimacy offered by Angkor -- the close interaction with its historic stones -- is a large part of its appeal।
But when multiplied over millions of visitors, the effects can be alarming.
"When you have such a huge mass of tourists visiting then we are concerned about damage to the heritage site and the temples and the monuments," says Teruo Jinnai, UNESCO's top official in Cambodia।
"Many temples are very fragile," he says, adding that the agency is working with the government to minimise the impact of the tourism boom।
Names and other graffiti are gouged into temple walls and unsightly wooden steps have been constructed over some stone staircases that have become worn with over-use।
In some temples, visitors have been prevented completely from coming into contact with delicate wall carvings।
However, the battle to preserve Cambodia's temples won't necessarily be fought in their stone breeze-ways and intricately-carved sanctuaries।
Rather, the bigger threat comes kilometres (miles) away, along Siem Reap town's increasingly congested thoroughfares, where more than 250 guesthouses and hotels, including several sprawling resorts, have sprung up in recent years।
-- Historic water threat shortages return as modern threat -- Some 500 years after a failing irrigation system forced Angkor's rulers to abandon the sprawling Khmer capital, a lack of water is again threatening Cambodia's most famous temple complex।
Just as the ancient city's waterways collapsed under the demands of a population of as many as a million people, an unprecedented tourism boom is again sucking the area dry and risking the collapse of many of Angkor's temples।
The sinking foundation and widening cracks between the carefully carved stones of Bayon temple, famous for the serene faces carved on its 54 towers, confirm what experts have long feared; one of Angkor's best known monuments is collapsing into the sandy ground around it.
This is caused by the unrestricted consumption of ground water by Siem Reap's hotels, whose enormous demand is destabilising the earth beneath the Angkor complex।
"Some hotels have 10 wells -- thousands of cubic metres of water are being pumped out each day," Khun Sokha says।
The coming dry season, when temperatures can hover at a blistering 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) for days, is only going to worsen the situation।
"Most of the hotels have underground wells। We have warned them not to pump out more than 8,000 cubic metres (10,500 cubic yards) per day, especially during the dry season," Soeung Kong says।
"As long as the number of tourists increases, the use of water increases। This is our concern, but we are not standing still, we are trying to make a balance between use of water and tourists," he adds।
But UNESCO's Jinnai estimates that on average Siem Reap needs at least 15,000 cubic metres a day to meet demand।
Japan is developing a plan to supply the area with nearly half of that, but questions remain about whether the total supply will keep pace with the town's relentless expansion।
"The construction of hotels is booming। We cannot ban the rich people from building accommodations," said Kuy Song, director of Siem Reap's tourism office।
But, he adds: "The future of the temples is really worrisome।"

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