The “Angkor Lake of Wonder” – a $350-million dollar resort town to be built by NagaCorp just outside the Angkor Archaeological Park in Siem Reap – could “have an impact on the outstanding universal value” that had the ancient capital inscribed as a Unesco World Heritage site, the U.N. agency said.
Hong-Kong listed NagaCorp Ltd, which operates NagaWorld in Phnom Penh, was in 2020 granted a 50-year lease on the land, about 500 meters from the edge of the 400-square-km park, which was listed by Unesco for preservation in 1992.
Unesco raised concerns about the development – which is set to include a water park, a theme park, a Chinatown and two hotels – in a statement on February 17, following a meeting of the International Coordinating Committee for Angkor (ICC) in late January.
“The proximity of the project to the protected buffer zones of the site as well as the scale, scope and concept of the planned activities could indeed have an impact on the outstanding universal value for which Angkor was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, including its setting, the surrounding landscape, the environment and the archaeological remains, all of which are an integral part of this World Heritage property,” the statement said.
Unesco said that it had received numerous appeals from third parties expressing their concern, and that it is in close dialogue with the Cambodian authorities.
“Any development concerning the Angkor site will be examined by the World Heritage Committee at its 44th session in June-July 2021,” the statement said.
Fences have been raised around the site but NagaCorp’s proposed development – which would promote NagaWorld in Phnom Penh and Angkor Wat as Cambodia’s “twin tourism icons” – is still “under discussion,” said Long Kosal, spokesman for the government’s Apsara National Authority.
“Apsara National Authority expresses its position on the maintenance work to ensure that it does not affect the global value of Angkor Resort,” said Mr Kosal, noting that the planned development falls outside the world heritage area.
He said the authority and the government are highly committed to protecting the world heritage site.
The development has been met with some criticism and skepticism, but that was likely due to a misconception that it would include a casino, said Ros Phearun, who oversees Cambodia’s casinos at Ministry of Economy and Finance.
“It is nothing related to gaming,” Phearun said. “There is no regulation to allow a casino top open in the Angkor Wat zone.”
Phearun said he did not have the expertise to comment on how construction could cause problems, as raised by Unesco.
NagaCorp enjoys a monopoly on casinos in Phnom Penh and has been controversially allowed to remain open for business at times when other entertainment venues were closed during the coronavirus pandemic.
Government tax revenue from casinos fell by 25% in 2020, with $38 million collected in the first semester, he said.
Angkor is one of the most important archaeological sites in Southeast Asia, Unesco said in its statement. It is the site of various capitals of the Khmer Empire, from between the 9th and 15th centuries.
Sok Touch, president of Royal Academy of Cambodia, said that he would reserve judgement until he knew whether it was built in a modern or traditional style.
“I cannot comment yet. Unesco’s concerns are justified, but the important thing is what the style is … so we wait for the reality when we have seen the master plan,” he said.
With authorities quick to ban locals from extending or improving homes in the far reaches of the designated park in the past, it did not make sense to allow such a large development just outside, said San Chey, executive director of Affiliated Network for Social Accountability.
“The Apsara Authority often bans people who build houses or cages for chickens, ducks or pigs, based on the criteria of the World Heritage Zone,” he said. “The NagaCorp plan is hard construction. It will impact the condition of the world heritage site.”