Growth in Tourism to Ancient Buddhist Sites – Not Always a Positive?

Tourism to Buddhist sites aims to promote interest for Cultural Tourism and Pilgrimage or Faith Travel, as well Archaeological Tourism.

But where is the line between the promotion as important tourist site and religious heritage?

The desire to embark on a journey for religious purposes has inspired people for centuries and considered the oldest form of tourism in history. But visiting ancient Buddhist sites is no longer a domestic and only faith related event.

In times of globalization it has been developed into a major commercial oriented industry. Travel agencies now offer special handcrafted tours to sacred sites, often including multiple temples in various cities or countries.

Tourists at Angkor Wat. Photo via Wikimedia by Kounosu

Tourism can have a potential high impact on the local culture by turning it into commodities, when rituals and festivals are reduced to tourist expectations, resulting in what has been called “reconstructed ethnicity”[1].

For example Angkor Wat: In the early 2000’s it was still possible to run around the complex without encountering another tourist. Now, it seems almost impossible. Numbers of visitors were rising 45% from the first quarter 2011 to 2012, making it almost 640000 [2] or in other numbers, 7100 per day.

Thus, the development of mass tourism during the past decade to temples like Angkor Wat or Borobudur effecting into deterioration and permanent damage of irreplaceable, century-old relicts and material.

Historical sites are often run by tourism boards that keep focus on monetizing from souvenir revenues, walking tours, restaurants or hotels in the respective area. In the case of large Buddhist events, these important sites are mostly exceeding the capacity of visitors – challenges include how to best manage the flows, proper hygienic/health conditions, food services, first aid and safety and security.

In an indirect way it also effects negatively the surrounding environment as it could potentially lead to natural disasters such as flooding or landslides.

It is also worth to mention that the profit taken through souvenirs, accommodation, etc. ought to benefit the individual and local businesses, but only a small percentage will be used for the actual maintenance of temples.

Naturally speaking, it depends on how the sites are managed: Sustainable tourism could be taught to tourists as way of orientation or information on arrival to sites, strict fines could be introduced where tourists go against those rules and certain viewing distance could be maintained. In order to manage increasing visitors, the management should have a plan in place to control the traffic and to not exceed the loading capacities of the temple.

Monks at Borobudur
Buddhist monks praying at Borobudur. Photo via Wikimedia by Frank Wouters

But tourism to ancient Buddhist sites works also as a catalyst for economic development and poverty reduction for the city / country by providing employment, incomes and taxes, thus increasing the country’s GDP. Moreover, tourism brings attention and recognition to these sites from the general public, as otherwise it might have been lost and/or forgotten.

The creation of a Tourism Management Plan and a Risk map has been put in place for Angkor Wat through a mutual cooperation of UNESCO, the Government of Australia and APSARA (Authority for the protection of the site and the management of the Angkor region) in order to support the locals and their culture, the temples and flora & fauna [3].

Reducing the size of tourism to historical important temples could have a devastating impact on the economies. Tourism to ancient Buddhist sites requires a well-coordinated partnership and collaboration between tourism boards, tour operators, local – and federal government authorities and of course – the visitors.


1: United Nations Environment Program –
2: BBC – Are there too many tourists at Angkor’s temples?
3. UNESCO – Angkor –