Wrestling with Tourism in Angkor Wat

As COVID forces a global shutdown on tourism, locals who rely on the industry face a precarious future

2.6 million. That’s the number of annual foreign visitors to Angkor Wat—the world’s largest temple and Cambodia’s premier tourist destination by a mile.

That’s 7,123 selfie-taking, insta-posting, review-leaving, side trip-going, entry-paying international tourists every day.

The Cambodian government banks over $100 million per year in entry fees alone. The city of Siem Reap, its 880 hotels and 139,000 residents have come to survive off the flood of tourists. An estimated 50% of the town’s economy derives from tourism. In one of the poorest countries in the region, the town of Siem Reap is an imperfect bright spot.

Or at least it was.

The steamy, iconic sunrise at Angkor Wat is now an eerie, solitary affair. Starting in March, Cambodia shut down to all tourists and international flights. When the country reopened, only 19 foreign visitors—all expats already living in Cambodia—were coming to the site per day on average, 0.3 percent of the pre-COVID numbers. 

For tourism-dependent countries like Cambodia, the road to recovery is long and uncertain. Tourist visas remain indefinitely suspended. The business, NGO, and diplomatic travelers who are able to visit face a gauntlet of hurdles: a negative COVID-19 test less than 72 hours old; proof of $50,000 in health insurance; and a $3,000 deposit upon arrival to cover further screening, quarantine, treatment, and—yes, read the fine print—a funeral in the event of your own death are now prerequisites to enter the country. 

While these policies are all eminently rational measures designed to protect Cambodians and government expenditure as the virus continues its global rampage, they also facilitate new crises. At the start of 2020, more than 600,000 Cambodians were actively employed in the tourism sector. The Angkor Wat tourist-industrial complex alone employed 10,000.

For tourism-dependent countries like Cambodia, the road to recovery is long and uncertain.

None of these folks received a $1,200 stimulus check or an extra $600 a week in CARES Act unemployment benefits. Those who rely on tourists to make their living in Angkor Wat—or Machu Picchu or Petra or Giza—have little to no social safety net. 

According to the World Bank, just .55% of Cambodia’s poor receive unemployment benefits. Like many countries across the Global South, Cambodia’s unemployment rate is remarkably low, but that is because the vast majority of the population works in the informal sector. Between those now out of work from the vanished tourism industry and the nearly 100,000 migrant workers who recently returned to the country as work elsewhere dries up, Cambodia now faces an emerging humanitarian crisis.

Government agencies and NGOs are turning their attention and limited funding from ongoing development work to humanitarian response as unemployed workers desperately need food and supplies to survive lockdowns. As this shift occurs, informal workers face increased vulnerability to human trafficking and other forms of labor exploitation.

As American would-be travelers wait out the lockdown on the other side of the globe, we must face the big questions about our own complicity in the immeasurable suffering which now wraps itself around our favorite global selfie-spots. As we begin to plot out our next vacations post-lockdown, there are simple considerations that can help decrease the precarious nature of tourism dollars. For instance, traveling at off-peak times reduces the ups and downs for workers’ incomes. Choosing alternative destinations can help to decrease over-tourism while bringing dollars to new locations. Even seemingly small choices, like choosing locally-owned hotels and participating in activities like cooking classes, taught by local residents can help make travel more sustainable. 

This strange time of COVID-19 lockdowns offers a unique moment to reflect and commit to new habits in support of those who make our travel possible.


Jacob Sims

Jacob Sims works for an NGO fighting modern slavery in Southeast Asia. From 2015-2020 he led an international development consulting practice and served as adjunct faculty at the College of William & Mary—teaching and guest lecturing in courses on Education, Human Rights, Migration, and Global Health. He previously led humanitarian programs in northern Myanmar and co-founded a social justice organization in eastern Uganda. Jacob holds a Master’s degree from LSE and is currently preparing to publish his first book, WanderLOST: stories from the winding road to significance.

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