An Asian Machu Picchu?

Its existence had been inferred for long, but now archaeologists using airborne laser technology have confirmed the discovery of a lost city on the slopes of a mountain in Cambodia, a Machu Picchu of sorts, that could have an even greater impact on the Southeast Asian nation’s already booming tourist industry. A team of French and Australian archaeologists peeled away layers of jungle foliage to trace the contours of the ancient temple city of Mahendraparvat that existed some 1,200 years ago, in today’s Siem Reap province, 40 km north of the Angkor Wat, the famous Hindu temple complex that draws more than 2 million visitors every year.

Mahendraparvat predated Angkor by at least 350 years and served as one of the three capitals (courts) of King Jayavarman II, said to be the founder of the Khmer empire. According to legend, his other two seats were Amarendrapura and Hariharalaya. Up on the slopes of Phnom Kulen, a mountain sacred to both Hindus and Buddhists, archaeologists have found five previously unrecorded temples and a gridded network of roads and dykes that connected these and 36 other previously recorded ruins. What amazed them was that all these ruins were divided in regular city blocks scattered across the mountain.

This discovery is bound to prompt an international effort for a detailed scientific excavation and development of the area, and its mountain-top location is sure to trigger wider tourist interest, just as the ruins of Machu Picchu, an Inca citadel in Peru that’s half as old as Mahendraparvat, draw hundreds of thousands of people from around the world. And that would mean new development activity in the region – roads, ropeways, hotels, service facilities – adding to Siem Reap’s already thriving boom. What’s equally interesting is a recently released report from the US National Academy of Sciences, based on an April 2012 airborne laser survey, which has revealed a much larger Angkor landscape, covering almost 370 sq km of terrain, which, researchers say, was nothing less than a monumental, planned, low-density mega-city without parallel in the pre-industrial world. While rewriting much of Cambodia’s history, the impact of the two discoveries on the country’s economy is going to be very big indeed.

Tourism forms the biggest chunk of the gross domestic product of what’s still one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia. Arrivals totalled 3.58 million last year and all indications point to that figure rising to over 4 million this year and reaching 7 million by 2020. Cambodia and Thailand have devised a single visa plan that helps. At the Mekong Tourism Forum recently held in Guilin, other countries in the sub-region have also expressed a wish to join the common visa programme, which should open up the prospects even wider, especially with an ASEAN common market coming into being in 2015.

At the Guilin Forum, countries of the Greater Mekong Sub-Region (GMS) endorsed a $741-million funding package to promote regional tourism. Much of the funding, of course, will come from the Asian Development Bank, which has been at work on Mekong tourism since 1995 and is presently preparing a new GMS tourism strategy for 2016-2026. Already being developed are 13 priority tourist zones and 16 thematic projects, including the management of natural and cultural heritage, the social impact of tourism, marketing and promotion, cross-border tourism, capacity building, and skills development. A total of $15 billion has been spent on developing the necessary infrastructure, including roads, highways and piers since a GMS Tourism Working Group was first set up.

The target is to achieve 52 million international tourist arrivals and $53 billion in sub-regional tourism revenue by 2015. Thailand, where the Mekong Tourism Coordination Office is located, is naturally at the heart of this ambition. Having received 22.35 million international tourists in 2012, it’s now projecting 24 million this year and 28 million in 2014. Even landlocked Laos, with four international airports, nine border crossings with Thailand, seven with Vietnam, and one each with China and Cambodia, reported 3.3 million arrivals last year.

The Cambodian government is now actively preparing to cash in on the likely opportunities, and opening up as many border crossings as possible is a key element of the strategy. There already are 20 international checkpoints in place, including 10 overland crossings with Vietnam, six with Thailand, and one with Laos, plus three airports and a seaport. The government has a master plan specifically aimed at mainland Chinese tourists, and intends to launch its own annual tourism fair, probably as early as 2014 and ahead of the Pacific Area Travel Association’s annual travel mart in September that year in the world heritage town of Siem Reap. And, to make sure that there’s no shortage of skilled manpower to cope with rising tourist flows, tourism has now been made part of the curriculum for Grade 11 and 12 students.

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