The project of a gigantic theme park next to the iconic Angkor Wat temples in Cambodia has been indefinitely postponed. UNESCO experts pointed out that the proposed resort could cause irreversible damage to the temples.

The “Angkor Lake of Wonder” would have been a place of superlatives. In November last year, the Cambodian government had granted the group a 50-year-long, renewable lease to develop 75 hectares of land just about 500 meters south of the outer restricted zone of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Angkor Wat.

The non-gaming integrated resort would have included several hotels, a water park, an indoor hi-tech park, MICE facilities, a shopping mall, a reproduction of a Chinatown integrating a food street. The highlight would have been canals like in Venice to ferry tourists on small boats around the theme park. The initial phase was due to be completed by 2025 with an investment of US$350 million. The theme park would have benefited of a special road linking it to the Angkor Wat temples. According to NagaCorp investor information, the site would have created thousands of jobs and bring in seven million tourists annually by 2035.

However, the creation of the resort was seen with anxiety and surprise by UNESCO. In a communiqué at the end of January, the UN agency for culture expressed its doubts. The sprawling ancient temple complex of Angor Wat — the largest religious structure in the world — was inscribed in UNESCO World heritage List in 1992. The resort, says UNESCO, would have weakened the temples’ fragile structures as well as the surrounding landscapes.

“The project’s proximity to Angkor’s protected buffer zones as well as the scale, scope and concept of the planned activities could have an impact on the Outstanding Universal Value for which Angkor was inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List,” UNESCO explained in an official statement.

Angkor Wat to remain solely a cultural destination

Early March, the Cambodian government finally followed the experts’ advice and decided to suspend the project. The Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts declared that the “project cannot be implemented in this context”. The Ministry judged incompatible the activities of the resort with the religious value of the temples. However, the Ministry did not reject the idea of allowing the construction of a hotel in the area where the theme park was due to be built.

NagaCorp is already the owner and operator of Cambodian integrated resort NagaWorld in Phnom Penh, the country’s largest gambling facility. The company holds a license to operate casinos in Cambodia for a period of 70 years until 2065. It has a monopoly to operate casinos within a 200 kilometre radius of Phnom Penh until 2045.

Siem Reap would have been the new crown in the jewel for NagaCorp as the group has no presence in Cambodia’s most popular tourism destination. The city is located less than 10 km away from the temple and has turned over the years into a popular hang-out for international visitors, from backpackers to luxury travellers. Prior to the pandemic, Siem Reap was visited by over five million travellers per year — domestic and international.

Angkor Wat itself received annually 2.2 million international visitors, generating about €84m in entrance fee ticket sales in 2019. Last year however, the Angkor Archeological Park received only 400,889 foreign visitors, down 81.8%. Sales of tickets reached only €15.88m in revenue, down 81%.

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