Editor’s note: This is the first of a three-part series about tourism in Cambodia.
siem reap town – A century ago, armed with pith helmets and porters, a scholarly band of pilgrims spent whatever it took to conquer the world’s great cultural monuments.
Today, they’re more apt to pile into air-conditioned buses and stay in five-star hotels, but the giddy willingness to spend remains the same.
They are cultural tourists, an industry catch-phrase for a well-educated, well-heeled group that makes up about a fifth of the touring market, according to a World Tourism Organization survey. It’s a segment expected to grow as much as 15 percent a year over the next decade as populations in developed nations age.
Typical cultural tourists are retired, cultivated and bored by “passive tourism,” defined as package tours, beach resorts or Disneyland-style theme parks. They want to explore new cultures, meeting local people and eating ethnic foods.
They will pay large amounts of money for the privilege, and countries like Cambodia, poor in almost everything but history, are doing back-flips to attract them.
Earlier this month, 81 delegates from 27 countries in Asia, the Middle East and Europe, including France and Germany, assembled at the Sofitel Royal Angkor for a three-day conference on how to carve out their piece of the cultural tourism pie.
It’s a delicate balance, said Veng Sereyvuth, Cambodia’s Minister of Tourism. Move too fast, and “the pressures of tourism can damage and even destroy the very sources of attraction,” he said.
But move too slowly and you’re trampled by other countries, each just as eager to display its own cultural treasures, Veng Sereyvuth said.
Conferees agreed that the sprawling temples of Angkor are a world-class draw, as potentially alluring as the pyramids of Egypt or the great Indian civilizations of Latin America.
They have the added attraction of being, until recently, hard to get to; and that means added bragging rights for those who do manage to make the trip, conferees said.
But at least two factors limit the short-term potential for cultural tourism here: poor roads and facilities, and the fact that Cambodia is so far away from rich Western populations.
It’s a hardy traveler who can endure the 20-plus hour flight from the US to Southeast Asia, and a rare one who can afford enough time to surmount jet lag and explore the temples at a leisurely pace.
So far, Asian tourists have been far more likely to visit Angkor.
Yoshio Koteda of Japan Travel Bureau Inc offered a plaintive plea from his countrymen, who he said are some of the most avid travelers on earth. “It is not so essential to have luxury hotels, because sophisticated travelers usually can understand the local situation and tolerate even basic amenities and food,” he said. “But toilet facilities are a must for Japanese tourists, since we Japanese seem to use [them] more than [Westerners], probably because of our physical composition. We need quite a few rest stops at regular intervals en route on bus tours and at sightseeing spots.”
He also said his countrymen don’t much like being robbed, or fleeced, jounced over horrible roads or assigned tour guides who speak no or rudimentary Japanese.
Eliminate those annoyances, he said, and Japanese tourists will flock to cultural attractions like Angkor Wat. A recent exhibition in Japan on the four great cultures of the world, he said, “drew millions.”
Germans, too, love to learn while they travel, said Barbara Peisert of TUI, Germany’s largest tourist agency. And of all the Europeans, they are the most likely to journey long distances to explore developing countries.
But like other Western cultures, they are still more likely to take short trips to neighboring European countries, because they don’t have unlimited time and prefer short, 2-3 day “study trips,” Peisert said.
That adds up to crowding at popular sites, such as the Pompidou Center in Paris, which daily handles as many as five times the 5,000 visitors planners envisioned.
“After two decades, this now world-famous architectural work of art has had to be completely renovated and extended,” she said. “The day it reopened, after two years of building work, 40,000 people were waiting at the door.”
Developed nations are handling the growing demand for cultural experiences by limiting ticket sales, opening additional museums or cultural sites, and closing off areas that are suffering from too much attention.
Such measures may be coming to Angkor, Veng Sereyvuth said. In the first nine months of this year, visits to Siem Reap were up 100 percent from last year, to 131,988; while visits to the country itself are expected to hit 400,000 this year, he said.
Veng Sereyvuth said he believes that number could rise to 1 million in 2003, although World Tourism Organization projections estimate 855,000 annual arrivals in Cambodia by 2010.
What is perhaps less clear is where those visitors will be coming from. According to the World Tourism Organization, worldwide tourism will grow 300 percent in the next 20 years.
The biggest chunk of the traveling population, 14 percent, will be Europeans, followed by 10 percent of people from the East Asia/Pacific area, which is basically China south through Southeast Asia to Australia.
Next come North and South Americans at 8 percent; Middle Easterners at 6 percent; Africans at 5 percent; and south Asia, which is India west to Iran, at 1 percent.
Nearly half will be heading to Europe, while more than a quarter will be visiting East Asia/Pacific; 18 percent are expected to visit the Americas; nearly 5 percent to both Africa and the Middle East; and 1.2 percent to south Asia.
The difficulty for countries like Cambodia is that most of those coming to Asia will be visiting China, which is mounting a strenuous effort of its own to attract tourists and is expected to be the most popular tourist destination in the world by 2020.
Francesco Frangialli, secretary-general of the World Tourism Organization, said Cambodia should benefit from spill-over. “China and Cambodia are both part of the Mekong sub-region, and the rippling effect of China’s inbound tourism will be mostly felt in its neighboring countries.”
Tuesday: How many tourists is too many?