Ever since French explorer Henri Mouhot went up Phnom Bakheng in 1859 and noted the “beautiful view” of Angkor that the temple mountain afforded, guidebooks have urged visitors not to miss the moment the sun sets at the monument.
This recommendation amounted to an incredibly successful marketing campaign, which has since seen millions of visitors flock to Phnom Bakheng to watch the sunset, but has also taken its toll on the 1,100-year old monument.
So much so that two years ago, the Apsara Authority—the Cambodian government agency that manages the Angkor Archeological Park—had to limit the number of visitors allowed in at any given time to 300.
But something had to be done: No one at Angkor—from tour operators and travel agencies to the foreign-expert teams on the International Coordinating Committee of Angkor (ICC) overseeing the site with the Apsara Authority—wanted visitors to leave disappointed.
Hence the “Best Angkor Sunsets,” a new marketing approach that the authority’s director-general Bun Narith presented to nearly 70 tourism-industry representatives Friday night in Siem Reap City.
Funded by the Australian and Cambodian governments and coordinated by Unesco, the project promotes, through a website and brochures, more than “30 sunset options to visitors at Angkor,” Unesco said in a statement released on Friday.
“It’s not a question of regulations: It’s a question of putting information in the tourism market so that operators and visitors can make their own choices,” said Richard Mackay, an expert in heritage site management with Godden Mackay Logan, the Australian firm working on the project.
Although the number of visitors to the 401-square-km Angkor Park may soon reach 3 million, “the site is very much sufficient to cope with those kind of visitor numbers,” Mr. Logan said.
“But it is important at this stage of Angkor history to be proactive in managing this process so that there is not overcrowding that causes poor-visitor experience” and affects monument preservation, he added.
According to Daniel de Gruiter, general manager of Lolei Travel in Siem Reap City, this initiative is very much needed. “We’re definitely at a point where it’s difficult to manage tours in some areas,” he said.
At Phnom Bakheng, he explained, “Some people get irritated and what is meant to be the highlight of their day becomes a hassle.”
The sunset initiative is part of an overall visitor-management plan for Angkor that will include a “Risk Map” to monitor air quality as well as population growth in Angkor park villages, said Blaise Killian, Unesco’s program coordinator in Cambodia. “The Heritage Management Framework Project’s goal…is to develop tools to manage Angkor in concrete terms.”
The project is one element of the management strategy that the ICC and Apsara Authority have developed over the last few years and which, by combining sustainable development and World Heritage site management, has turned Angkor Park into a model that Unesco and the World Heritage Committee (WHC) have been studying.
The committee, which monitors the 981 sites such as Angkor that are on the World Heritage List, ended its annual meeting in Cambodia last week by mentioning that a draft policy combining monument conservation and sustainable development will be submitted at its annual meeting in Qatar in June.
The need to link economic development and conservation has become all the more urgent since international funding for site preservation is rapidly dwindling while the number of sites on the list keeps increasing—19 cultural and natural sites were approved at the WHC meeting in Phnom Penh.
As Unesco representative Francesco Bandarin told delegates at the meeting, Unesco has lost nearly 30 percent of its worldwide funding and budget cuts will soon affect all programs including the World Heritage Center set up by Unesco to help countries preserve their sites.
The center, whose staff has already been reduced, may see its budget slashed by 20 percent, he said. The budget crisis will be discussed during a special session of Unesco’s Executive Board on Tuesday.