Planning for Sustainable Tourism

By: David Bowden

Originally Published in 1995

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Tourism is a commodity supporting a vast industry. Indeed it is claimed to he the biggest industry in the world, employing more people than any other activity. But for many people, it is more than this, “it’s about hope, it’s the prospect of cross-cultural communication and exploration of self and other” (New Internationalist 1993:1).

As a commodity, tourism is a luxury enjoyed primarily by those living in the North or the “developed” nations. Despite this, many people who may not be travelers become involved in tourism. It is important for these people to understand the ways it affects their lives. The people living around Angkor in northern Cambodia are one such people, and they are discussed here as a case study in the social and environmental ecology of tourism.

Within the travel industry emphasis is increasingly being placed on a range of pursuits that bring visitors closer to local inhabitants (Fig. 1). Tourism that involves heightened cultural and natural interaction is developing as a niche market. More tourists want to learn about the specific cultures of others. This includes seeing the culture firsthand in as natural a state as pos­sible. Not all such contact should be considered good, however. Some warn that this alternative tourism could be more destructive than mass tourism since it brings tourists into direct contact with people in remote loca­tions, thus intensifying acculturation and its attendant effects (Chayant Pholpoke in Eber 1992).

Environmentally Friendly Tourism

The term “tourism” is being used increas­ingly to describe the new form of alternative travel cen­tered on nature. However, ecotourism programs don’t necessarily have to be in pristine environments far removed from urban areas. Ecotourism involves four distinct components: the natural environment, ecologi­cal and cultural sustainability, education and interpreta­tion, and a provision for local and regional benefits. In the main it caters to small groups, but some large group activities could be included in ecotourism.

Ecotourism is managed to avoid or minimize negative impacts and to confer benefits on host commu­nities and environments and future generations. It requires that all those participating take an active envi­ronmental role. But concern has arisen over the misuse of the term, since expectations of an ecotour vary throughout the world. For many tourists, the term implies only minimum standards of environmental qual­ity and awareness. Related to this is the issue of whether activities or destinations presented in promotional materials can be delivered on a long-term basis.

Environmentally friendly tourism should not be restricted to ecotourism. Many argue that most sec­tions of the tourist industry are unsustainable. That is, they degrade the environment, adversely affect the local community, or fail to return worthwhile economic ben­efits. There should be more development that, in the words of the World Commission on Environment and Development, “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Over time, it may be necessary to limit the number of tourists who visit cultural and natural sites if they damage, or are thought to damage, these sites. Approaches that may be taken to keep visitor impacts to a sustainable level include restriction of access, use of permits or entry systems, or variable pricing mecha­nisms. One solution could be to provide quality tourism experiences to a high-spending clientele. It is argued that high quality and high prices will provide the same returns as mass tourism but with less impact. However, such approaches have elitist dimensions and raise con­cerns about whether money should be the sole determi­nant of who is permitted to visit and who isn’t.

There is an important function to be played by regulatory authorities such as governments and tourism bureaus in managing resources. These authorities need to ensure that all forms of tourism to sensitive sites are sympathetic to the environmental and cultural settings and are sustainable.

As environmental concerns increase, many sec­tions of the tourism industry have voluntarily become more responsible. Codes of behavior and industry stan­dards also help. National accreditation schemes will provide a basis for industry self-regulation, as well as offering consumers useful information with which to assess different tourism enterprises and activities, both locally and globally.

The World Tourism Organization is develop­ing a set of internationally acceptable environmental indicators to strengthen planners’ and managers’ under­standing of the principal factors influencing the tourism industry’s long-term sustainability and prosperity (Hawkes and Williams 1993).

Some goals of sustainable tourism are: —development that does not degrade the resource upon which it depends —achievement of maximum cultural, economic, and ecological diversity  maximization of the uniqueness and authen­ticity of the resource or site  use of the cultural and natural environment to stimulate sustainable economic growth —use of local resources and people.

Who Benefits from Tourism?

Tourism confers many advantages on the national economies of the world. It can be especially beneficial for a developing economy when the industry employs large numbers of people and earns for- eign exchange. It provides opportu­nities for people to discover other cultures and fosters goodwill. Tourists see, hear, taste, buy products, and experience in many other ways aspects of the host culture.

On the other hand, there are many disadvantages. Sectors of the tourist industry are often controlled by multina­tional tour operators, hotel chains, restaurant groups, and airlines who profit from holiday traffic and local operators. In many instances the local jobs generated are unskilled and seasonal. Much of the profits from tourism go offshore, leaving little behind for locals.

In some countries, development projects for foreign tourists are undertaken at the expense of the local people. Economic activity generated by ecotourism should directly benefit the local or host com­munity and environment. While there are many direct economic benefits from ecotourism, there are other benefits associated with the conservation of an area. These include protection of watershed and erosion con­trol, as well as biodiversity protection. Protecting an area also maintains the option to develop it in the future.

Angkor: Cultural Heritage in a Natural Setting

The cultural monuments of Angkor are signifi­cant to both Cambodian and foreign visitors (Fig. 2). With more than 1000 identified archaeological sites, it is one of the most recognized tourist destinations in all Indochina. While tourism has been limited during the past decades of civil war, Angkor could rapidly re-estab­lish its importance as a tourist destination for both its cultural and natural features.

In recognition of the unique cultural and nat­ural environment of Angkor, the area was declared a national park in 1925. Named the Parc d’Angkor, it was almost 11,000 hectares in size and was the first national park established in Southeast Asia. Before the civil war the park was administered by Conservation d’Angkor. This organization was responsible for the restoration of the ancient monuments, as well as the protection and conservation of the park. In addition, there were some attempts to manage the forest and animals of the park. During this time Angkor was only accessible to a few tourists.

When listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993, Angkor was in a unique situation as Cambodia had been placed under the tempo­rary administration of the United Nations. Since the Cambodian gov­ernment was in a period of transi­tion, UNESCO was asked to assist the Cambodian authorities in their restoration and conservation tasks, and it subsequently drew up a Zoning and Environment Management Plan (HEMP) for the Angkor area. In order to guarantee protection of the site, UNESCO requested a special in-depth study. This involved: enacting adequate protective legislation  —establishing an adequately staffed national pro­tective agency —establishing permanent boundaries —defining buffer zones —monitoring and coordinating the international conservation effort (Fig. 3a-c).

In addition to defining protected/restricted areas and surrounding buffer zones, HEMP developed zoning regulations and management guidelines not only for the World Heritage Site, but also for the larger sur­rounding area wherein development activities might have adverse effects on conservation of the Angkor site itself.

Tourism could earn an additional $450 million for the Cambodian economy (UNESCO 1993), money which could be used to fund archaeological conserva­tion and support other industries. Tourism could also assist in providing jobs for Cambodians. However, it could also threaten Angkor with uncontrolled develop­ment, leading to loss of or damage to archaeological sites. There is evidence this is already occurring. A site like Angkor requires legislation and management prac­tices that will maximize the use of the resource without threatening its long-term sustainability.

Sites such as Angkor, where both significant cultural and natural features occur together, face increasing pressures. As the population grows, more local people will depend upon the limited natural resources around Angkor for their survival. There will be pressure to increase production in agriculture, forestry, and fisheries. This will involve using more land, adding to the already existing problem of popula­tion settlement around the monuments.

Additional problems arise as more tourists want to visit the cultural monuments. It is not only the physi­cal number of tourists, but the services these people require, both in getting to the monuments and while there. More tourists mean that new hotels must be erected, additional plane services provided, extra wastes removed, and so on. Managers of the cultural and nat­ural resources of Cambodia will have to look at how much pressure these resources can withstand before they are degraded.

In planning for the future use of Angkor it will be necessary to allocate certain areas for development, areas that are kept well away from the monuments so as not to disturb the natural environment or the historic visual impact of the site. Zoning should provide protec­tion to the cultural and natural resources while encouraging appropriate development. UNESCO has already identified three distinct zones around the monuments: the central archaeology zone, the Phnom Kulen hinter­land, and the Tonle Sap (Great Lake) region.

The Central Archaeology Zone and Beyond

The site around Angkor is a special archaeolog­ical situation in that it is still used by the local people.

Not only does it have religious significance for them, but the land, waterways, and forests around it provide them with their livelihood. To prohibit their activities would have a serious impact upon not only the local population, but also on people from Phnom Kulen to the Tonle Sap.

The natural resources around Angkor have been modified over the past several thousand years. The ancient Angkor kingdoms endeavored to control environmen­tal resources for their own benefit and changed the hydrological cycle in the Siem Reap area to develop an extensive irrigation system. These historical activities have significant implications for the present pattern of land use. Current agricultural practices on the Siem Reap floodplain still rely heavily on the former hydrological system. However, damage and degradation of this system have limited current agricultural productivity (Fig. 4).

Much of the former Parc d’Angkor was forested before the civil war, and maintaining what remains around the major monuments is another concern. Local people rely heavily upon the forest, collecting fuelwood, vines, and resin from the large dipterocarp trees (Fig. 5). Villagers have also been taking rattan from the forests for centuries (Fig. 6). It is used for many purposes, includ­ing construction of fish traps on the , Tonle Sap. Over-harvesting the rattan would ultimately affect the fishing industry. People outside the central Angkor area also rely on the park’s natural resources. Harvesting in Angkor’s forests has implications for activities located many kilometres away. An enormous volume of bam­boo, wooden poles, and vines is required to construct and maintain commercial fish traps on the Tonle Sap (Fig. 7). The construction of these traps is a major eco­nomic activity involving collection, transportation, and distribution networks that extend as far away as. the Kulen hills.

Over-exploitation of natural resources and the possible attendant deforestation will have ramifications beyond those affecting the livelihood of the forest har­vesters. Deforestation will be detrimental to the river catchment due to silting in the Siem Reap River and the Tonle Sap (see below), erosion, loss of water quality for domestic use, and reduced fish catches. Maintaining the forests has obvious importance for the local people and the aesthetic and social environment of the park. It is reasonable to assume that, with proper management, most human activities can be conducted in a sustainable manner.

The Tonle Sap

The Tonle Sap to the south is part of the wider region in the Angkor environment (Fig. 8). It provides Cambodian people with much of their fish and, hence, protein intake. More than 60 percent of the popula­tion’s protein intake comes from this great lake (Figs. 9, 10). It is one of the most productive freshwater fishing grounds in the world, with a yearly fish production esti­mated by the Fisheries Department at 50,000 metric tons (UNESCO 1993). The lake is directly linked to the greater Angkor area because of the rivers that flow into it. The rise and fall of the Mekong River, with its head­waters far to the north in Tibet, has a significant impact upon the lake and the activities occurring on and around it.

The largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, the Tonle Sap preserves extensive stretches of inun­dated forests along its shores, making it an ecosystem of outstanding significance (Figs. 11, 12). The lake itself is an important breeding ground for hundreds of fish species and many species of birds, both migratory and endemic. The forest is a valuable windbreak that pro­tects the agricultural floodplain from the strong winds that cross the lake during the wet season. The trees in the forest also trap nutrients washing from the land. These nutrients are consumed by fish in the lake. The ongoing ecological and hydrological processes, influ­encing water dynamics between the lake and the Mekong River, are also crucially important to the con­tinued existence of the area’s plant and animal commu­nities.

The Tonle Sap also has scenic and aesthetic values that make it potentially important for recreation and tourism. Tourism in the Siem Reap area has so far focused on the monuments of Angkor, yet the lake could present a unique experience for foreign and prob­ably local tourists. Recognizing its importance, the Cambodian government is seeking special protection by nominating part of the lake as a World Heritage Site (Haywood 1994).

The Tonle Sap already suffers from environ­mental degradation. In the past, the inundated forest covered approximately 1 million hectares, but it has been reduced to just over 600,000 hectares. Such large-scale deforestation could have led to changes in fish species composition and fish yields, but little research on this has been conducted.

Furthermore, accumulating silt from the hin­terland of Angkor and Phnom Kulen is becoming an increasing problem, made worse by the clearing of the inundated forest. Deposits of silt in the main channels affect navigation on the Tonle Sap, but are now also thought to affect the migration of fish. Increased silta­tion in the lake causes localized shallowing of its waters. It is thought that in these shallow waters the water heats rapidly, leading to fish deaths.

The availability of food in and around the Tonle Sap is not very secure. Local fishing people struggle to feed themselves, and their monthly income is very low. Most farmers have only one crop per year (rainfed rice), and droughts can lead to substantially reduced crops. There is only a limited possibility for irrigation during the dry season. This means that for approximately six months of the year there is little farm work. In order to supplement their income, many farm­ers exploit the inundated forest for fuelwood. It is against this social and environmental background that the development of tourism must be understood.


It is easy to kill the goose that lays the golden egg. It is essential that the tourism industry preserves the attractions and uniqueness that draw people to an area. By linking environmental education with simple and minimal travel needs, ecotourism can help protect the environment and give economic incentives to local people to preserve tourism resources. For this to hap­pen tourism should be low impact; it should use local guides and products so that much of the money stays in the local community.

Cambodia is at a threshold where lessons can be learned from the mistakes of others. Management should ensure that Angkor does not become isolated blocks of monuments, cut off from their natural envi­ronment or from the urban realities of nearby Siem Reap town. Sustainable resource use of the forests, land, and lake around Angkor is as important as tourism plans which preserve the archaeological sites.

Cite This Article

Bowden, David. "Angkor." Expedition Magazine 37, no. 3 (November, 1995): -. Accessed February 29, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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