The American author of Overbooked: the Global Business of Travel and Tourism, award-winning journalist Elizabeth Becker was in Siem Reap recently for the UNWTO and UNESCO World Conference on Tourism and Culture. I chatted to her about culture, heritage and sustainable tourism in Cambodia.
Repeat visits since, over many years, and a love for the country has fueled her interest in tourism development, its impact on culture and heritage, and a concern that it is responsible and sustainable.
Q. You returned to Siem Reap to moderate a session on how well managed tourism can be a driver in safeguarding and promoting culture while nurturing a sense of pride in communities.
A. After I published my book Overbooked which talks about this whole issue of culture, global tourism and the explosion of tourism, the UNWTO asked me to moderate – because of my background in Cambodia as well – and I’m very pleased to be here.
The point is to get the culture people talking to the tourism people… getting everyone talking about the issues that have to be solved, the huge problems involved, and to come up with solutions, and not just talk about how great everything is.
Q. Safeguarding culture and promoting tourism are often at odds.
A. There are huge problems. When you talk about cultural tourism you can’t just talk about literature, dance, music, you need to talk about sewers, crowd control, and the nitty-gritty as well. A lot of times governments and tourist boards talk about the great successes and win-win, and there is rarely in this world a win-win.
There is a downside with every upside. Also transparency issues – they like to say: “this helps the local economy”. Prove that. They say: “this is a major source of protecting the site”. Well, how does it protect the site? You can’t just make blanket statements. You have to have very good information, and make sure there’s some transparency involved.
Q. Tourism ministers around the world like to boast about big tourism numbers, yet there are countries that are great models of sustainable and responsible tourism like Bhutan that restrict tourist numbers.
A. There is a constant debate in the tourism world about numbers. That’s why every other sentence is sustainable, sustainable, sustainable. On the one hand you’ll hear, “Oh, we’ve boosted tourism by X percent and that amount of money”. On the other hand, “We know we have a sustainability problem”.
Bhutan is at one extreme. Venice is the other extreme. Then in the middle is a country like France, which is constantly figuring out the data and whether the local community is helped or not and has incredible policies to make sure that it is, from having all public beaches to ensuring that the tourist transportation doesn’t interfere with the local.
Q. Cambodia still gets excited by big tourist numbers. Do the number of visitors to Angkor Archaeological Park need to be restricted?
A. In my book I wrote that and went into it at great length. There hasn’t been a study on whether or not they can have all these hotels and have all these visitors… but the archaeologists are talking to them, other governments are talking to them, and Japan and France are leading the pack on this.
But it is Cambodia’s country. There’s only that much you can do. On the plus side Cambodia does have international archaeologists working here, something that’s unheard of elsewhere, so that’s a big plus. There is Angkor Archaeological Park and a fence around it. They did not build that huge new airport. They also know that Angkor can’t be ‘It’ and they are diversifying. I think they saw what happened in Thailand.
And you can see what’s happened at the (archaeological) sites. The steps are worn down so you have to build new steps. With people walking all over the towers they’re not going to last long. It’s not like the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris that was built for everyone to worship, these were very much temples for the elite. You can see slowly but surely the numbers are having an effect.
Q. When it comes to cultural sites, there’s still a lot be done. Heritage is being lost – the colonial centre of Siem Reap needs to be preserved.
A. It’s a stew. You can’t look at one bit. The Cambodian culture is very rich and historically the temples of Angkor have been an incredible centre for Cambodia – they’re on every flag, it doesn’t matter which the government; whether it’s a beer bottle or whatever – the temples have defined Cambodians.
In Battambang they have preserved the historical colonial architecture. In Siem Reap they haven’t. I’ve watched this country change tremendously, but overall when you look at, say, Cambodia versus Thailand, it’s night and day. They have preserved here. You look at Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, China, Laos, you name it – Cambodia has done a better preservation job than its neighbours. In China they have torn everything down. Cambodia has proportionately done a better job.
Q. You said in your book that you thought Cambodia had got a lot of things wrong in terms of tourism. Have things improved since you began research for the book five years ago?
A. Those are serious problems and I was seriously worried about them; I’m not sure if much has been done. The one thing that has changed for the better is culture. The cultural side of this country is one of the most exciting parts. There’s been a renaissance of the living cultures and that’s very important to who Cambodians are.
Cambodia has rich traditions and part of the motivation was losing them. So much was lost but it’s being recovered and modernized and there’s been an amazing adaptation to technology. There are fabulous videos, Rithy Pann’s movie making, Bophana, the Documentation Centre of Cambodia (DC-Cam), dance groups, the Season of Cambodia in New York.
That doesn’t happen everywhere. That’s a very good sign. When Rithy was nominated for an academy award, it was really important. For most nominations it means a producer will make more money, an actress will get better roles. This nomination meant a country had recovered its pride. So when we talk about culture and tourism, there’s a cultural renaissance here and I’m very positive about it.
Q. Local travel, social travel, peer-to-peer travel – I like to think the sharing economy and these forms of travel are more sustainable, yet around the world in cities such as New York, Venice and Barcelona locals are protesting the lack of regulation that resulted in a tremendous number of holiday rentals in local neighbourhoods that have changed the culture of the city.
A. New York is a great example. In fact this is not about the sharing economy, this is about corporations avoiding laws. In the USA there are entire communities that are furious because people are buying up places to rent. You work so hard to zone this and zone that, to regulate, and all of a sudden a corporation comes in and pretends it’s a sharing economy and blitzos your neighbourhood. It is a huge war. There needs to be better regulations.
In the historic quarter of New Orleans they are up in arms over all the illegal rentals, which is also the downfall of Venice. Venice is disappearing. Count the grocery stores; they’re gone. Venice is gone. They have ruined communities very quickly. It’s not so innocent and it’s not so sharing. And it’s not simply a tax issue.
The group that keeps getting lost is the local people who are the hosts of these tourists and they are getting angry. It’s the same with Uber. They’re going to have to start regulating. If you believe in law and justice and regulations for harmony, you can’t go around it. If you want to have a sharing economy, accept the rules that go with a sharing economy. The balance has not been reached. You have to respect the local community.
The one issue that nobody talks about is population. You can have all kinds of rules when the world population is 7 billion, but you’re going to have to change them when it’s 8 billion or 9 billion and it’s supposed to stabilize, but until it does you have to keep rejiggering it and that’s the biggest elephant in the room when it comes to sustainability. And they used to worry that Cambodia was under-populated.
Q. If you returned to Siem Reap, to Cambodia, in five years, what would you like to see?
A. There has to be transparency. They have to have real data and have to understand how tourism affects the community. I’m really glad that the super airport wasn’t built. That’s good. I would love to see a quota for the number of people per day at the temples, days off for different temples, and taking those pointers off the tour guides.
I would love to see more trees. I’d love to see the Siem Reap River bigger, some environmental help up in the hills. I’d love to see fewer buses and more walking spaces, more clean electric transportation. But it’s going to take time.
I just want to see it going in the right direction. And I’m not sure it is. I think it’s one step here, one step there, one step back. But then I think what has happened to some of Cambodia’s neighbours. You have to put it in context. Cambodia has done very well.