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Concern about excessive mass tourism is not new…
The framed poster on the left dates from around 1931 and was made for the Paris Colonial Exhibition. You can see it now in the lobby of the Grand Hotel d’Angkor in Siem Reap, near the home of the Angkor Wat temple complex.
But nearly a hundred years ago the advert was suppressed, with French colonial authorities worried that it could encourage too many more visitors.
Today, you can choose to believe that the (between one and two million) people visiting these apparently everlasting, but actually fragile temples is too much, and is destructive. Or that it’s constructive and not enough. The Cambodian government was hoping for 20 million Chinese visitors alone to the country this year - which will never now come to pass.
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Working with NGOs locally doesn’t make the choice between these views much easier.
Five years on from our last stint here, conditions seem improved for locals - the result of cash coming in from these tourist sites and glitzy Siem Reap.
Folks in nearby districts are better fed, better dressed and there are almost no children out of school, begging. Cambodians are a large proportion of the tourists here too, which was not the case before.
Well, with great exaggeration, there’s something of a Year Zero moment right now as a result of Covid-19.
Tourism in Siem Reap had fallen by 25% in February. Now the flow has run very shallow indeed.
Back in January, over the course of just one week, we saw all Chinese holidaymakers disappear from the streets of Chiang Mai in Thailand. Business owner Peter described guides who were leasing fleets of tourist minibuses for $2000 a month - with nothing now coming in to pay for them.
By March, Western tourists followed the Chinese, Japanese and Korean examples - we saw the streets quieten pleasantly in Ubud, the cultural capital of Bali - and then get a little too quiet.
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The break in Bali turned into something longer, as Vietnam was closed to outsiders, and our last gigs disappeared as a result. Remaining on that lovely island instead was appealing…
Local doctors said were no cases of the virus there at all. In fact, we heard of 900 Chinese people who were stuck in their hotels in Bali - told by their government to stay in place.
Two days later, after weeks of having our temperatures taken at airports and hotels in Bangkok, KL, Siem Reap and Bali we arrived somewhat relieved at London Heathrow.
- Where there was no testing at all.
Our final flight, closer to our European work, was on an Airbus A320 : capacity 200 plus. We were outnumbered by the aircrew.
While we were in Siem Reap, one day, we got up far too early to see any temples at Angkor. It was pitch dark, and the authorities have now closed the complex to visitors until 7:30am. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise. We were able to sit quietly and watch a small community of Buddhist monks worshipping nearby.
We considered how prayers had been said there for centuries. And how fortunes had changed during that time; how a vast civilisation had disappeared, due to changes in political power, and climate change.
About three weeks ago, the Hindu island of Bali was due to celebrate Nyepi - one of the very oldest rituals celebrated by human beings.
Our chum Kadek described part of this ceremony of renewal to us : “Imagine all the sins we have committed through the year end up in a cauldron. This day we will take that cauldron and scrub it out.
"The virus will not touch us.”
I truly pray that turns out to be correct. The people of South East Asia stand to lose what they have gained economically in recent decades. Strip away the clamour of air conditioning units, TVs, mobile devices, scooters, sports vehicles and new concrete housing…
...You’ll find the majority live very close to the edge.