siem reap town – As tourism at the Angkor temples skyrockets, this once-sleepy provincial town is booming. Millions of dollars change hands as hotels, restaurants and tour operators spring up left and right.
All that new development contrasts sharply with the hordes of beggars who haunt the temples. Siem Reap’s poor people are being left behind, or even harmed, by the influx of visitors and money—and government and international officials believe it’s time to do something about that.
“So far, poor people have not had enough help from us,” Tan Sumbun, the Apsara Authority’s deputy director-general in charge of socioeconomic affairs, said in an interview on Friday. “We have to increase our help to them.
“This is a new concern because we think we cannot have a certain amount of development without helping the population,” he added. “Now that tourism is a success it is time to help them.”
At last week’s conference of the international committee that oversees the Angkor World Heritage Site, using the Angkor boom to lift up the area’s neediest residents was widely discussed.
In his speech praising the progress of the Angkor site, the Cambodian government’s representative, Chea Sophorn, undersecretary of state for the Council of Ministers, said, “The Royal Government is not ignoring certain difficulties that have not yet been satisfactorily resolved. They are social and economic issues.”
“We are…concerned by the plight of the most disadvantaged inhabitants of the Angkor region,” he added. “Measures of redress are under way.” In 2003, the government will for the first time devote significant funds to this aim “with the constant goal of improving the well-being of the neediest populations,” he said.
In the first 11 months of 2002, 276,639 foreign tourists visited Angkor—up an astounding 33 percent from the same period last year.
In many ways, the growth of tourism has negatively affected the people of Angkor—the 160,000 who live in Siem Reap town as well as the 100,000 living inside the 450-square-km World Heritage Site.
Sex tourism has exploded in the town, Florence Pasnik of the NGO International Association for Development, Tourism and Health told the conference. The large sums of money paid for young prostitutes, especially virgins, have led families to sell their daughters into a life they can never escape, she said.
“In a few years we have gone from zero to 600 prostitutes in the town of Siem Reap alone,” she said.
The presence of foreign tourists with cash to spend has shifted people’s traditional priorities, Tan Sumbun said.
“Tourism development can cause a lot of problems,” he said. “For example, some children don’t want to go to school, they only want to beg for money from tourists. That’s not good. We have to educate them, ask them to go to school, help their families.”
In addition, villagers from around the country seem to be increasingly migrating to Siem Reap in search of work and income, Tan Sumbun said. “If you ask people in the streets where they come from they don’t say Siem Reap. They come from other provinces,” he said.
This migration must be controlled, said Azedine Beschaouch, a Paris-based UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization official who heads the international committee’s secretariat.
“Now we are confronted with migration of people from outside the site to the site in order to benefit” from the economic success, he said. “We must analyze it before it gets out of hand…so that the site of Angkor doesn’t become a second city.”
Population growth inside the Angkor site has made the villagers more visible to visitors, according to research presented at the conference by Bernard Wouters of the University of Lund in Sweden. “Habitations are coming closer to the main roads and increasingly becoming part of the visible landscape,” he said.
The nature and needs of Angkor’s population are not yet understood. Next year, a volunteer expert from New Zealand will conduct a survey, Tan Sumbun said.
The issue is tied up with urban development in Siem Reap, which has been a point of contention for years. The international experts have pushed for a comprehensive plan to preserve the historic old town and shunt new construction toward a planned 100-hectare “Gates of Angkor” development area northeast of the city.
Prime Minister Hun Sen last year rejected one such plan as too extreme, saying it would limit development. A more moderate plan has been drafted and submitted, but no decision has yet been made, Uk Someth, the Apsara Authority’s deputy director-general for urban planning, said.
“Given that the city is now mushrooming every which way, there seems to have been no strategy” for controlling growth, Uk Someth told the conference Friday. “If we want to show the way to economic development for Cambodia we must have a strategy, must have balance, or we will not have proper development or coherence in the city of Siem Reap.”
Three factors—economic development, social development and environmental protection—must be balanced, he said. “We have not reached this balance, and I am afraid we will not,” he said. “Given the increase in tourism, we must focus on this very seriously.”