Editor’s note: This is the second of a three-part series about tourism in Cambodia.
siem reap town – If old is good, then Egypt is at the top of the pyramid.
With a civilization stretching back 7,000 years, Egypt is older than Angkor, older than Rome, older than Greece and older than China.
For at least two centuries, tourists have streamed to the Nile to marvel at the Pyramids, the Sphinx and the temples at Luxor.
In fact, so many tourists have gone to the ancient land, that Egypt has begun to choke on its own success.
Experts gathered in Siem Reap earlier this month to discuss the growth of cultural tourism, a small but well-heeled segment of the world tourist market that Cambodia hopes to lure to Angkor Wat in ever-increasing numbers.
The question is, what’s the magic number?
Let in too few visitors, and the country remains mired in poverty. Let in too many, and tourists flee the then-swamped attractions, telling all their friends, “For God’s sake, don’t go there,” tourism officials said.
Laila Bassiouny, undersecretary for the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism, said Egypt has peeked over that precipice and is now backing away.
Tourism officials know that if they don’t better control the numbers of people who flock to the most popular attractions, they will lose both the tourists and the fragile attractions themselves, she said.
One of the most beautiful tombs in the Valley of the Kings and Queens, Bassiouny said, belongs to Queen Nefartari, the wife of Ramses II.
It has been closed for several years for restoration, and when it reopens next year, “the entrance fee will be 10 times the fee to visit the Pyramids—and only 200 people per day will be allowed in,” she said.
If the strictures work, they could be extended to other sites, she said.
Barbara Peisert, a German tourism expert, said Egypt has relied for too long on promoting only 14 main monuments, when there are scores of others that tourists might love to see.
Just how shortsighted that policy was became clear when terrorists attacked tourists at some of the most popular sites, scaring some people off for good.
“With the stretch of the Nile between Cairo and Luxor closed off to cruise ships following several terrorist attacks, and charter flights being diverted directly to Luxor, the Pyramids, mosques and the Egyptian Museum have been dropped from most [itineraries],” she said.
One country that is taking steps to protect its resources before the crowds grow too thick is the Philippines, said Narzalina Lim, a consultant with the World Tourism Organization.
An example is the Rice Terraces of the Cordillera tribes, which are beautiful, remote agricultural structures that date back 2,000 years. To protect the villages from being overwhelmed by growing numbers of tourists, only certain areas are open to foreign visitors, Lim said.
“These villages had strong community participation and a leadership which [knew] what it wanted from tourism,” she said. “Other villages which had a more fragile social fabric were to be shielded from tourism until they were ready for it.”
But like the US tourist attraction, the World’s Largest Ball of Twine, some attractions are just not going to knock everyone over.
Kim Jean Sei, director of the Korea National Tourism Organization’s Thailand office, talked about promoting a number of traditional activities as potentially interesting to cultural tourists, from making handicrafts to the preparation of kimchi, the spicy Korean cabbage delicacy.
But the Kwangju biennial, an Asia-Pacific art exhibition founded in 1995 and held every two years, has had mixed success. Although he did not provide complete figures, he said the first event drew 1,650,000 visitors who paid $17 million to attend.
Subsequent receipts have been lower, he said, due to reduced prices and a variety of problems including “decrease of repeat visitors, lack of programs in which the visitors can participate, and a level of art that is difficult to understand.”
Countries can have wonderful cultural riches that people just won’t risk spending their time and money to see, experts said. For example, Iran, like Cambodia, has breathtaking ancient ruins but a recent history of instability has kept tourists away. Its cultural heritage dates back 5,000 years, extending from calligraphy to exquisite Persian miniature painting, graceful Islamic architecture and Persepolis, the ruins of a 2,500-year-old capital city.
Perhaps the most difficult issue in cultural tourism is making sure all levels of society in the host country reaps its benefits, experts said.
Cambodia, the experts said, is on the wrong track.
Now planeloads of tourists fly into Siem Reap, climb onto air-conditioned buses and are shuttled between their elaborate hotels, the temples, selected restaurants and souvenir shops.
In this protective bubble, the visitors barely come in contact with the hundreds of moto taxi drivers, noodle-sellers, tuk–a-luk vendors, or low-end guest-house proprietors who are trying to make a living too.
Lim said this kind of treatment will eventually drive away the cultural tourists who genuinely want to learn something about Cambodia.
It also creates resentment among poor people, who must watch helplessly as a few become rich. Lim said the smart government works with the small business people, making micro-loans to help them start niche businesses that will thrive, rather than being the 200th stall selling Angkor Wat T-shirts.
“If local communities are viewed as partners of the government, they themselves will protect the heritage site because they know that their own success is linked with the long-term viability of that site,” she said.
Without that teamwork, local communities can begin to treat visitors with hostility, prey on them or even vandalize the historic sites, she said.
(Wednesday: What is China doing to promote tourism?)