The United Nations’ cultural agency UNESCO on Wednesday aired concerns over a proposed new project by casino giant NagaCorp, which plans to build a $350 million integrated tourism facility near the Angkor Archaeological Park.
NagaCorp, listed on Hong Kong Stock Exchange, holds a monopoly over gambling rights in Phnom Penh, where it is in the process of constructing a third casino. In November, the casino company said it planned to construct an amusement park named “Angkor Lake of Wonder”, combining hotels, water parks, botanical gardens, a high-tech theme park, grand canals, and a China town.
The tourism development would be just outside the boundaries of the UNESCO site, which is administered by the Apsara National Authority. UNESCO listed the 400-square-kilometer Angkor Archaeological Park as a world heritage site in 1992.
On Thursday, UNESCO said the amusement park project was central to discussions conducted in the late January meeting of the International Coordinating Committee for Angkor, a multinational mechanism to oversee Angkor’s conservation and development.
Opinions from the experts attending the meeting were “clearly unfavorable” to the proposed NagaCorp project, UNESCO said in a statement released Thursday.
“The proximity of the project to the protected buffer zones of the site as well as the scale, scope, and concept of the planned activities could indeed have an impact on the outstanding universal value for which Angkor was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List,” it said.
“UNESCO is certain that the Cambodian authorities remain fully committed to the implementation of the World Heritage Convention and will ensure that the protection of the outstanding universal value of Angkor remains at the heart of the decision-making processes relating to the property and its surroundings.”
Long Kosal, a spokesperson for the Apsara National Authority, said the Cambodian government encourages foreign investments but also worked closely with UNESCO and ICC-Angkor to better regulate the world heritage site, which dates back centuries.
Kosal did not directly answer if the Cambodian government would nix the NagaCorp project if ICC-Angkor or UNESCO recommended it.
“Whatever the Apsara National Authority is doing, we always consult with the ICC-Angkor. And now that they provided a kind of recommendation, there will be further discussions but I am not so certain what’s next,” Kosal told VOA Khmer.
“One certain thing is that the Apsara National Authority will always listen to opinions and recommendations from the ICC-Angkor,” he said.
A NagaCorp spokesperson declined to comment when reached by phone Thursday morning, asking the reporter to send questions in an email. The casino company did not respond to questions sent via email as of Thursday evening.
In an announcement publicizing the project in November, NagaCorp said a Chinese state-owned enterprise “had expressed sufficiently serious interest to finance, build, and complete” the Angkor Lake of Wonder project.
Without naming this firm, NagaCorp described the Chinese state-owned enterprise as “a theme park builder and a reputable and sizable contractor involved in the Shanghai Disneyland”.
The Shanghai Disneyland’s website states that the theme park was a joint investment between Walt Disney and a Chinese state-owned Shanghai Shendi Group.
NagaCorp said the project would be the only “truly integrated resort close to Angkor Wat in Siem Reap” and would be built on a 75-hectare land plot leased by the Apsara National Authority through a 50-year lease.
The development land, it said, was located 500 meters south of Angkor Archaeological Park’s protected zone.
Long Kosal did not answer questions about NagaCorp’s claims that it had already reached an agreement with the Apsara National Authority in May 2020.
“Attracting foreign investments is the policy of the Royal Government of Cambodia and I do not think there is any problem here,” he said.