siem reap – After discussions that ranged from plastic shoes to zoning, the plenary session of the International Coordinating Committee of Angkor ended this week with major questions raised but action postponed on development problems affecting the historic Siem Reap area.
While several participants stressed the threat that unchecked growth represents for the Angkor Archeological Park—both inside and outside its boundaries—ICC members on Tuesday did not manage to agree on short-term steps to deal with the incredible pace of growth in Siem Reap town.
Within one year, the number of hotel rooms in the Siem Reap area has jumped by 1,000 to a total of 7,000 rooms, said Francesco Bandarin of the World Heritage Center at the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in Paris.
“Tourism is coming into power” in the area, he said.
Buildings spanning entire city blocks are under construction in Siem Reap town, while more hotels are being built along National Route 6, which has already become a virtual hotel corridor between Sivatha Boulevard and the road to Siem Reap International Airport.
Clouds of dust engulf motorcyclists and pedestrians as traffic grows on the town’s main streets. But despite the construction frenzy, drinking water, sewage and drainage systems for the new hotels have yet to be put in place.
At last year’s ICC session, committee members had agreed to create an ICC advisory committee on sustainable development to look at growth issues affecting the Siem Reap area.
In 2003, the ICC—which consists of representatives from countries involved in conservation at Angkor and officials from the government agency Apsara Authority—received a new mandate that extended well beyond monument preservation and into city growth, which strains the area’s as well as the park’s environment.
On Tuesday, participants brought up the matter again, asking for an advisory committee to be created without delay, and stressing the need for the government to coordinate donor development programs in Siem Reap.
Inside the archeological park, “regulations must be developed for land use and construction,” said French Ambassador Yvon Roe d’Albert in his opening remarks.
Current legislation seems too vague to enforce zoning and prevent the construction of permanent structures in the park’s protected zones, he said later in an interview.
Sok An, deputy prime minister and president of the Apsara Authority, replied at the meeting that legislation was adequate but its implementation was lacking.
Even though zoning legislation exists to determine what can be built and where in the 401-square-km Angkor park, “in practice, it’s not so clear,” said Tek Sakana Savuth, executive director of the NGO Angkor Participatory Development Organization, which works directly with villagers living in the park, on Thursday.
While it is clear that construction is not permitted at the temples themselves, there is some confusion as to where, for example, zone two ends and zone three begins on the ground, he said.
As a result, villagers live with a certain amount of uncertainty, wondering off and on whether they will have to move, Tek Sakana Savuth said.
At the start of the ICC meeting on Tuesday, Japanese Ambassador Fumiaki Takahashi mentioned that a 1993 Unesco report had anticipated that a tourism boom could affect the park as people from the area claimed land to illegally build inside the protected zones.
Unfortunately, this is starting to happen, he said.
“To remedy the situation…all parties involved—Apsara Authority, the provincial authorities, the various donors and the local population must join forces to study ways to balance development and environment and to share a global development policy based on a long-term vision,” he said.
After mentioning in his opening remarks that the Apsara Authority and other ICC members should share information, Fumiaki Takahashi could not hide his surprise when he learned that the government had signed a five-year entrance ticketing contract for Angkor with Sokha Hotels without informing the committee.
The committee had insisted for years on the need to make the original ticketing contract with the Sokimex-owned Sokha Hotels more advantageous to the Apsara Authority.
Bun Narith, Apsara Authority’s general director, explained at the meeting that, according to their 2005-2010 contract with Sokha Hotels, the authority and the hotel company would now share the first $3 million in revenues on a 50/50 basis.
Under the agreement, the authority will also receive 15 percent of the revenues beyond the initial $3 million, which will be used for emergency restoration work and for other projects. Of the remaining 85 percent, Sokha Hotels will pocket 20 percent and the authority will receive the balance.
According to Bun Narith, Sokha Hotels will also be required to invest $750,000 per year in the park for a total sum of $3.75 million over five years.
Those funds are to be used for road repair, for toilets, for equipment for forest-fire and first-aid services and for a new ticketing system at the new entrance to the Angkor park.
ICC members did not comment on the contract’s terms, which became effective in August, but at the end of the session Fumiaki Takahashi called on the authority to improve transparency in its dealings.
Several projects for temple restoration and on-site tourism management were mentioned during the meeting, including the somewhat peculiar “plastic slippers” plan.
Tep Henn, Apsara Authority deputy director-general, announced that tests will be conducted to find suitable plastic slippers for use by tourists at Angkor, an idea that was first floated by ICC members who had previously discussed making tourists wear plastic slippers at certain temples in an attempt to limit wear and tear on the ancient stones.