Each year, millions of dollars flow into the tourism hub of Siem Reap, the gateway city to Angkor Wat. Yet just outside of town, the effects of that economy are hardly felt at all. Out here, people struggle to make a living, and grinding poverty is pervasive, despite decades of tourism development around one of the wonders of the world.
Sitting in a hammock outside her palm-frond home, just 20 kilometers down the road, Ton Samith, a 52-year-old widow and mother of two, told VOA Khmer that in the 20 years she’s lived in a Banteay Srei commune, in Preah Dak district, she’s never really thought of the economic disparity taking place in Siem Reap, or the money made from ticket sales to tourists visiting Angkor Wat.
“I don’t bother thinking much about that, because I’m more concerned with raising my children,” she said.
Tourism income doesn’t help her, she said, pointing out that her home does not even have a proper latrine. (Local authorities offered people here latrines and material, but she would have to pay for the construction, she said. “They only provided an empty toilet and did not help with other things.”)
Foreign visitors, meanwhile, spend $20 per day to visit nearby Angkor Wat and another $30 per day on food and lodging, according to Meas Ny, an independent researcher. Ticket revenue goes to the central government before it is ostensibly returned to the local economy, he said.
In neighboring countries, a small fraction of the income goes back to the locals, he said. “They will study whether the benefits for the people in the region are on the rise or not” from tourism, he said. “To this point, I haven’t seen any studies here so far, besides those setting up measures to prevent people from construction homes or settling on new land.”
Benefits to locals around Angkor Wat are “miniscule,” he said. Instead, private, powerful business interests, backed with security forces, can run people off, including those selling souvenirs to tourists. Local products are not protected, so goods imported from Thailand, China or Vietnam are on the market. “The souvenirs from those countries are becoming huge in number,” Meas Ny said.
Nearby, people are not allowed to expand their farms, and a low number of teenagers complete high school. Meanwhile, Cambodia earns nearly $60 million in ticket sales from Angkor Wat each year, from nearly 2 million visitors.
Sean Pov, a 50-year-old fisherman on the outskirts of Siem Reap, said the numbers did not surprise him. Nor does that income improve his life, he said. He carries his fishing traps by bicycle, has little access to outside information, and can’t afford the upkeep on his deteriorating home, he said.
Taken as a whole, the economic instability around the country’s major tourism income generator leads many here to wonder why their children remain without shoes, left to beg near the temples.
Sok Eysan, a spokesman for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, told VOA Khmer it’s impossible to keep everyone informed on how the government is spending revenue. “Should each ministry report its income to everyone?” he said. “Do we have such a thing? Even the US doesn’t have that, let alone Cambodia.”
Ticket revenue at Angkor Wat goes toward developing infrastructure there, he said, referring other questions to Apsara Authority, which runs ticket concessions.
“We do a lot of things related to community development,” Long Kosal, a spokesman for the authority, said. That includes to communities around the Angkor conservation area, he said, including “capacity building of other people’s skills and road-building and irrigation channels, in a manner that helps them be able to make a living.”
He did not disclose the percentage of sales revenue that goes back into communities, but he denied that local hawkers have been run out by larger interests.
In November, the government announced it would no longer lease the complex (and ticket sales) to parent company Sok Hotel, Ltd., which has controlled the temples for the last 17 years.
Ton Samith, the widow, says she isn’t paying much attention to the transfer, while Sean Pov, the fisherman, said he had no time to think about tourism revenue, foreigners or the ancient temples of his ancestors.