With City Visit, World Heritage Efforts Ramp Up

As part of Cambodia’s push to have the cities of Battambang, Kampot and Kratie granted world heritage status, a Unesco delegation is set to visit Battambang today and assess its architecture and historical buildings.

The visit will take place amid an international tourism conference in Siem Reap City that was to gather high-ranking officials from 21 countries to discuss sustainable tourism and heritage cities.

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Tourists climb up and down stairs on a spire at the Angkor Wat temple, the main attraction at Angkor Archaeological Park, in Siem Reap province. (Creative Commons)

Prime Minister Hun Sen opened the international conference on Monday with an appeal for heritage protection alongside development.

“Which buildings should be preserved, and which should be developed? It needs balance,” he said at the second Asia Cooperation Dialogue Ministerial Meeting on Tourism, held in conjunction with the International Conference on Sustainable Tourism and Heritage Cities.

“Like in some cities, old government buildings from the past need to be preserved and protected, but we cannot keep the whole city from being developed,” Mr. Hun Sen said. “This is what I am requesting: to focus on the issue of preservation and development, [and] not to make it become one-sided.”

The Tourism Ministry announced plans in April to seek world heritage status for Battambang, Kampot and Kratie, all dotted with colonial-era buildings and architecture. Tourism Ministry spokesman Tith Chantha described the cities at the time as “secondary tourist destinations” after the country’s dominant tourism attraction of Siem Reap, home of the world-famous Angkor Archaeological Park.

Siem Reap far outpaces the rest of the country in terms of visitor numbers at more than 5 million a year, according to the Tourism Ministry website, and economists have warned the country needs to diversify its tourism offerings in order to have the industry drive growth.

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Tourists leave the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh in August 2016. (Hannah Hawkins/The Cambodia Daily)

Battambang attracted about 600,000 international and domestic tourists last year, while nearly 900,000 visited Kampot, and Kratie saw about 92,000, according to the ministry.

Tourism Minister Thong Khon said yesterday that the Unesco visit to Battambang would assess the city’s “foundations of architecture and historical buildings, which are the base for attracting tourists.”

“We also hope to receive advice and suggestions on additional important elements for the city to be more prepared for the applications in the future when making formal requests to Unesco,” he added.
Unesco’s country representative Anne Lemaistre said she hoped the tourism conference would aid Cambodia’s bid to preserve the three historical cities.

“It can give economic opportunity to these cities in order to reduce the migration for locals who move to work in Phnom Penh,” she said. “Small cities can create big ideas for development and share the rich cultural identity.”

However, tourism gained from world heritage status can also become a threat to sites’ short- and long-term sustainability, according to research published in the Journal of Cultural Heritage in March.

“UNESCO status does not necessarily mean that the host [nation] is able to protect the site sufficiently, given the major increase in tourism that results from receiving the status,” Josephine Caust, one of the study’s authors, said in an email at the time.

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