IT is the biggest show in town, not to mention cash cow, so when news hit this month that ticket revenues for the Angkor temple complex were down, social media lit up with concern.
In January to August this year, ticket revenue was $69.4 million, down 11.8% compared to last year, and the number of international tourists was 1.55 million, down 11% year-on-year.
Whereas only a year earlier, The Khmer Times reported that ticket revenues were soaring.
Social media experts gave a variety of reasons for this year’s downturn, blaming it on the Chinese tourists, the increase in ticket prices in 2016, and the collapse of Sihanoukville as a western tourism destination.
Others noted that foreign visitors to Cambodia have been increasing overall during the same period, up 11% year-on-year for the six months of this year, and this could indicate that tourism is diversifying away from Angkor and Siem Reap.
Prime Minister Hun Sen noted that the fall in Angkor numbers wasn’t a cause for concern because it is the result of the government pushing to diversify tourism. Plus, he added that the decline could be due to a global economic slowdown.
Concerns aside, this year’s downturn hasn’t been the first for Angkor.
A decade ago, Angkor visitor numbers and revenue also fell dramatically, due to the global financial crisis. In 2009, ticket revenue was down $27 million, down 10% year-on-year, following another 10% downturn in 2008.
The 2008 decline was the first time since the global SARS outbreak in 2003 stalled Angkor tourism growth.
Historically, foreign visitors to Angkor increased from nearly 50,000 in 1998 to 316,000 in 2002, and in February 2004, the Smithsonian Magazine reported, “Now Angkor is the fastest-growing tourist destination in Southeast Asia.”
Interestingly, while this year’s decline in visitor growth caused, there were little, if any, suggestions that a decline was a good thing.
Ever since 2000 and the presence of Angelique Jolie filming a movie at Angkor, earnest NGOs and academics have decried mass tourism to Angkor.
An October 2005 study, financed by the Japan International Cooperation Agency, claimed Siem Reap wasn’t up to the job. “The town itself is neither attractive nor comfortable enough for non-group tourists to move around by themselves,” the report claimed.
Fake news reports beginning in 2006 suggested the Angkor area’s natural water table was being depleted by the growing number of tourists, and the temples could collapse.
There was even concern in government circles – in 2006 Tep Vattho, then head of the development department of the Apsara Authority, the government agency managing the Angkor Archeological Park, spoke out about the dangers of mass tourism.
“We are not ready. If one million come a year, the environment will be destroyed very quickly,” she said.
But millions did come, and even Hollywood came to Angkor in 2000 to film part of the movie Tomb Raiders starring Angelique Jolie.
The film makers and the actress attracted the opprobrium of protestors decrying the movie because it might prompt mass tourism instead of the protestor-preferred “cultural tourism.”
The protest was led by an overly-exuberant Australian academic Tim Winters who, in a paper published by the International Journal of Heritage Studies in December 2002, described Tomb Raiders as “The ultimate post-modern concoction…a production firmly rooted in a genre of Hollywood Blockbusters, a film genre that eschews any aspirations to high culture or claims of representational integrity.”
Okay, so he didn’t like the movie.
Winter claimed to, “Demonstrate that the filming of Tomb Raider at Angkor represented a contradictory clash of two culture industries, one embedded in the superficial,
reductive and aesthetically driven paradigm of Hollywood cinematography and the other being a notion of heritage built around largely modernist distinctions between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture.
“It will be argued that the presence of Angkor in Tomb Raider was incongruous with the prevailing aspirations of developing the site via ‘high quality, cultural tourism’.”
Movie production ran from Nov 22-29, 2000, and about a week after production finished, Winter reported in local media that claims about the film creating a mini-boom in Siem Reap were an exaggeration, that the boom “could have been distributed around town more widely,” because most local businesses “were cut out of the supply market loop.”
Winter summed up, writing, “As tourists come to see Lara’s Angkor, where Cambodians dress in Vietnamese hats and live in a fishing village on the steps of Angkor Wat, the temples will be framed by a new, contemporary mythology that might one day rival the original Angkorean myths of creation.
“Tomb Raider tours, T-shirts and theme bars may well become the film’s most tangible legacy to nearby Siem Reap.”
One tangible legacy Winter failed to predict was the famous Tomb Raider Cocktail, concocted by Geert Gabor, owner of Pub Street’s Red Piano bar.
Gabor said, “The guys from the movie, the technicians, started coming here regularly. It was God’s gift, as we say. And I decided that OK, for them I would make a cocktail, the Tomb Raider cocktail.
“The guys then said, OK, we’ll bring Angelina Jolie in, so she came. A few of the expats and I were also extras in the movie, and we’d see her then as well.
“Film crews always have a party on the last day of shooting, and the Tomb Raider crew had the party here. That was a wild night. And for a small restaurant like us that had just opened, we immediately had our biggest night ever. The producer came in and said, ‘Here, have $500 and tell me when the drinks are finished’.”
And the rest is, as they say, tourism history.