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Recent news stories concerning the Angkor Wat palace complex in Cambodia have highlighted fears that rapidly increasing visitor numbers (more than for any other World Heritage site) are causing it great damage.
Back in 1993, when it was first listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage site, fewer than eight thousand people visited it. Last year, this number had risen to a staggering 900,000 visitors. This figure is set to rise to three million by 2010.
One of the most important existing Khmer monuments – and the largest religious structure in the world – Angkor Wat is only the most high-profile amongst more than forty other monuments in the park that are under threat from the thousands of visitors who clamber over them every day.
The World Bank recently issued a warning that other buildings, such as the magnificent Bayon, are effectively suffering subsidence caused by nearby tourist encampments (including an 18-hole golf course) drawing off the water from subterranean reserves.
The question of how best to address this and other related problems is urgent and demanding of immediate attention. The Taj Mahal is visited by seven million people every year. The Great Wall of China, the Luxor Temple complex in Egypt and the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru are being worn smooth by the many feet and hands that pound their ancient stones.
Other sites, the Great Pyramid at Giza and the Old City of Jerusalem among them, are confronted with similarly tough decisions in the future, whilst natural sites of particular importance such as the Great Barrier Reef also have to confront the prospect of prohibiting visitors because of the damage they do.
Until a decision as to whether unrestrained tourist numbers continue to be permitted on to such sites is reached, their future looks precarious.