Shift in Tourism Leaves Some Questioning Preservation Plans

“Preservation for development, and development for preservation”—that was the catchphrase repeated this week by government officials at an annual three-day Culture Ministry summit in Phnom Penh.

Government officials focused much of their discussion on protecting cultural sites from Cambo­dia’s Angkor period and earlier at the conference on cultural preservation organized by the Ministry of Culture.

However, some international organizations and government officials said the government should place an increased emphasis on maintaining some of the country’s urban heritage, including preserving French colonial-era sites in Phnom Penh.

Cabinet Minister Sok An, speaking at the closing ceremony Thurs­day, said Cambodia’s ancient temples, long the backbone of the country’s tourism sector, needed to be at the forefront of any preservation campaign.

“Cambodia’s tourism sector depends upon cultural tourism,” Sok An said during his 11⁄2-hour speech.

“Nobody can cut out tourism from culture,” he said.

But with the abundance of re­sources that already go toward preserving Angkor, and more foreigners visiting Phnom Penh than Siem Reap province last year, the argument that the temples need extra attention is losing validity, Con­stitutional Council member Son Soubert said.

The Tourism Ministry reported a 19 percent increase in foreigners visiting Phnom Penh in 2008 to a total of 1,065,595, which is slightly more than the number of foreigners visiting Siem Reap.

“I think the history of Cam­bodia is not only focused on the pre-Ang­korian era,” said Son Soubert, who is also on the board of directors of Heritage Watch in Cambodia.

“There are centuries of other history and culture just as important to Cambodia as the pre-Angkorian period…including, of course, the pre-independence era,” he said.

Several international organizations, such as Heritage Watch and Unesco, already provide aid for preserving the Angkor temples, Son Soubert said, so resources already put into the park should be enough to allow the government to divert some attention to the country’s pagodas and urban heritage.

And it was a new threat to the urban heritage of Phnom Penh that prompted Unesco Country Director Teruo Jinnai to write to several top government officials earlier this month, urging them to take into account a series of recommendations made by his agency more than three years ago.

In a letter dated Jan 15, Teruo Jinnai said suggestions made at a January 2006 Unesco forum in Phnom Penh—which were en­dorsed at the summit by Sok An, Phnom Penh Governor Kep Chuk­tema and Princess Noro­dom Marie Ranariddh—appeared to be neglected in the dispute over the future of Phnom Penh’s Renakse Hotel.

Teruo Jinnai said the letter was prompted by reports that the French colonial-era Renakse may soon be destroyed.

“It can be difficult to do sometimes, but it is possible for cultural preservation and private economic interests to complement each other,” Jinnai said in an interview.

“There is so much history in Phnom Penh’s buildings, and it would be a shame to do something that cannot be undone.”

Ok Sophon, director of cultural heritage in the Culture Ministry, said in an interview at the forum Wednesday that while ancient Khmer temples are a top priority, preserving colonial-era architecture was important as well.

“We consider protecting ancient temples to be the top priority for the Ministry of Culture, especially the pre-Angkorian temple Sam Bor Prey Kuk in Kompong Thom,” he said. “But besides those temples, all the buildings that have historic, architectural and artistic value also need to be preserved,” he added.

But Son Soubert said the government’s actions are not living up to their words.

“I don’t think they really care about anything post-Angkorian,” he said. “Angkor is what gets most of the attention, and there is so much else that is being forgotten because of that approach.”

            (Additional reporting by Neou Vannarin and Steven Kurczy)

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