Tuesday, February 11, 2020

The price of cultural tourism

Angkor Wat 1880.
The attraction of cultural tourism is its uniqueness and, most often, its scarcity. It is precisely because a historical monument or a cultural tradition is unique and only found in one place that cultural tourism exist: one must go there to experience the culture. Unlike attraction parks that can be replicated anywhere to meet market demand and spread the traffic, cultural destinations cannot duplicate themselves and cannot expand without compromising or diluting some aspects of their cultural value. Where is the fair and ethical line between preserving virgin state and meeting demand?

Like footsteps in the sand

Even the first tourist visiting a cultural destination leaves footsteps in the sand. This will hardly affect its cultural value as the wind will soon erase these marks. But how many footsteps in the sand can there be before damage occurs or before a road needs to be built to prevent damage? And there lies the problem: is the road more or less damaging than the footsteps in the sand? Is it preservation or compromise? The sand trail or the road brings economic benefits to the local community and takes back tourists enriched with culture, everyone wins or so it seems.

The footsteps in the sand is an allegory for all that happen at a cultural destination as it becomes popular. The road replacing the trail; the theater seating replacing the bench; villagers becoming actors in daily performances; barriers and signs added to monuments; sanitation and infrastructure, etc. All that is necessary to transform a site or a village into a tourist destination all the while preserving its cultural value and minimizing the effect on the life of its people.

How big is cultural tourism anyway?

It is significant but still a fraction of mass tourist destinations. The Louvre museum gets about 8 million visitors a year, the Alhambra in Grenada and Angkor Wat in Cambodia about 2.5 million. Compare that with Disney World in Florida at 52 million visitors, making it the most visited tourist attraction in the world. Even the Las Vegas Strip tally up to 40 million.

Now consider that you can see the Mona Lisa and the entire Louvre museum, or the Alhambra for less then US$20. Angkor Wat used to be a measly US$20 to visit the largest religious monument in the world, entry price was raised to US$37 in 2018. In contrast, Disney World Florida, will set you back nearly US$100.

Most cultural destinations are under-priced

Both Disney World an Angkor Wat offer a full day of excitement yet the attraction park tickets are three times more expensive than that of the cultural destination. With an annual increase in visitor count of nearly 20% year-on-year [1], Angkor Wat preservation and infrastructure become ever growing challenges to safeguard the integrity, and consequently the long-term cultural value, of the site. Compared to the total cost of travel and accommodation to get there, even US$100 tickets would not slow down visitor growth, but would certainly fund better preservation and more ecological tourism facilities.

Cambodia's Angkor Wat Breaking Records for Visitors Again, Tourism of Cambodia, 6 April 2013

Ticket revenue at Angkor Wat jumps 72 percent after price hike, 2 January 2018

Angkor hosts 2.6M visitors, 2 January 2019

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