Sunset Views and Sustainable Tourism Concerns at Angkor
Sustainable tourism is an important element of WMF’s work and a critical message around the world as heritage sites balance protecting fragile, historic materials and providing a safe and pleasant experience for tourists. High tourist season at Angkor brought some unexpected problems to ongoing conservation at Phnom Bakheng, one of the oldest temples in Angkor Archaeological Park. Hordes of tourists disregarded barriers, multilingual warning signs, and guards, climbing onto and over delicate brick shrines, a fragile stone wall, and approached active work areas to have a view of the sunset.
Everyone should enjoy the view from Phnom Bakheng, which is indeed breathtaking, but it was a dispiriting moment for the WMF team and colleagues at APSARA. Phnom Bakheng is a sacred place, as well as being a wonderful tourist destination. The barriers, signs, and warnings from guards are a means to remind everyone to be respectful of the ancient monument. There are many conscientious travelers around the world who are aware of the fragility of ancient structures, but we need to do a better job of educating people about the irreversible damage that can be done to historic places by ignoring signs, barriers, and warnings.
Immediately after these incidents, APSARA National Authority and WMF made decisions to improve the protective measures at the site. These included posting additional guards to encourage visitors to be mindful of the special care needed for the temple and enjoy the sunset view from the base of the temple and the viewing platforms constructed around the site. While we want everyone who comes to Angkor to have a rewarding experience, we must emphasize that the enjoyment of a place depends on visitors being given the tools to understand the best way to protect and respect the site.
Organizations like WMF and APSARA will continue to educate the public about the importance of sustainable tourism practices, but we can only do so much. Tourists themselves must be mindful and spread the word about how essential it is to respect the fragile nature of many cultural heritage sites. Understanding this will help important places like Phnom Bakheng and the other temples at Angkor survive long into the future.