The film opens with the unprecedented tourist boom at Angkor in Cambodia, where over 1,000,000 tourists visit each year. I was recently in Angkor for the third time at the request of a good friend, who wanted to have a quick look at the site, to see if it was worth spending more time there later.
A one-day visit to Angkor is not in any way to be recommended, not only can you not see the sites at their best, it is hard not to be appalled by the sheer amount of tourists, and, with many of them (but not all), their utter disregard of the places they are visiting.
Nearly all the sites in Angkor are of a religious nature, yet nearly all the tourists, whether Western or Eastern, are not, and cannot therefore be expected to have respect for buildings and other artifacts, that were once the most sacred of the sacred, and so you get half-naked men and women striking poses before Buddha statues and other objects of reverence, and litter strewn around places of worship. Needless to say, really, my friend was completely put off the sites and canceled plans to visit later.
The documentary itself is not so concerned with these matters, as with such things as the impact tourism is having on the local cultures, as money floods in, people are displaced and resources become scarce; for some reason it doesn’t even touch on the problem that many rich tourists bring their defilements with them, encouraging drunkenness, prostitution and gambling and all the corruption that goes with those things.
The second site Alea visits is the underdeveloped (or even undeveloped) site of Banteay Chhmar, which I visited recently myself. There you can see what things may have been like in Angkor a decade or two back: there are hardly any tourists, and the villagers are developing at a more leisurely pace. But they are also hoping that Banteay Chhmar gains World Heritage status, as that will mean more visitors and more income.
The third site she visits is Luang Prabhang, still a living culture, but one in which everything from alms-giving to festivals have become a spectacle which is packaged and photographed and thereby alienated, and even young monastics cannot go to the river to bathe in peace, but have become part of the spectacle.
The last place she visits in this short film is a heritage center known for its great natural beauty: Halong Bay in Vietnam, with its clear waters, schist cliffs and gigantic caves, here too there are more tourists coming in than people living in the area, which is having a major impact on the site.
Of course there are two sides to the problem: nearly all the locals want tourism to increase because it means an income for them and their children, and they are willing to put up with the insensitivity of foreigners, and the pollution that arises, in order to secure a better future for themselves.
The report discusses various, often contradictory, solutions: in Angkor the problem is that too many people are visiting too few sites, so the suggestion is to encourage them to take in a wider range of sites; while in Vietnam the solution has been to restrict tourists to only a few sites, so they don’t destroy the rest.
In Luang Prabhang the only way to maintain local crafts has been to produce them for the tourist trade, but then they are no longer cultural artifacts, but manufactured objects, reified from their original setting.
The documentary goes a long way to point out some of the problems, which anyone interested in heritage must have noticed increasing over the years. We want people to be interested in our heritage and culture in Asia, but, of course, we don’t want that interest to get to the point where it destroys it.
Tomorrow I will show another film which discusses some of the issues, but in a totally different setting. A talk given at the Asian Art Museum by Fan Shi, who oversees the conservation work at the Dunhaung caves in China, which is now receiving over three times the recommended amount of tourists, most of which are Chinese themselves.