Post-conflict heritage, postcolonial tourism by Tim Winter
Post-conflict heritage, postcolonial tourism: culture, politics and development at Angkor London: Routledge, 2007
xxvi, 170pp., ISBN 0-415-43095-X ,
hb £76.50; 0-203-94638-3 (eb).
Reviewed by V.T. King, University of Leeds
Perhaps a review of a book published in 2007 is past its sell-by date, but Post-conflict heritage is an important piece of work in the field of tourism studies in Southeast Asia and more widely, and it deserves a considered comment. It is a strikingly good book, powerfully and convincingly argued, and it speaks to both academic researchers and the practitioner community, though, for those who are more interested in policy, perhaps a little less of the postcolonial, post-modern narrative and theory would have been welcome. Angkor has both enormous national importance, and with its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992, global cultural significance. For these reasons Winter’s analysis is of particular moment. The importance of his study is obvious when, in setting the scene, he tells us that in the early 1990s ‘Cambodia was about to witness an explosion in tourism unparalleled in any other country in recent times’ (p. 1). The volume also carries on in the tradition of such writers as Robert Wood and Michel Picard in exploring the politics of culture and identity in the context of tourism development in Asia.
What is especially compelling about the book is the way in which Winter interweaves the history of the temple complex of Angkor, its ‘rediscovery’, ‘scientific’ conservation, interpretation, and presentation (or ‘the freezing of tradition’ in monumental, tangible form), with the post-independence political, commercial and developmental use of the site. The post-independence deployment of Angkor as a national resource and a commodity to be consumed has also obviously served to exert intense pressures on it. The construction of the image of Angkor turned on its discovery by the French as a jungle-covered ruin in the mid 19th century which in turn, for the colonial power, came to represent the birth, growth and death of a sophisticated and forgotten ancient civilisation. The French responsibility was then to claim and recover this lost classical culture, and preserve and conserve it for posterity, as well as to reconstruct and revive the Khmer ‘nation’ and its history. In the first three decades of the 20th century the French project was directed to conservation but also to the zoning, landscaping and opening of the site to the tourist market. In this context Angkor was presented as a symbol of the exotic and mysterious Orient. Nevertheless, Winter argues that the conservationists, and more recently UNESCO, preoccupied with the protection of monumental remains, have acted to de-humanise history and landscape rather than see it as a living and meaningful cultural resource for local communities. In attempting to shield Angkor from the pressures of modernity, there has been a ‘re-imposition of Eurocentric understandings of place, culture, and history’ (p. 47) and a failure until recently to come to terms with and plan for tourism development which has tended to be viewed as a threat and not an opportunity.
In his excursion into the politics and management of heritage and the contestation over the presentation, ownership of and access to an international tourism landscape (or ‘touristscape’), Winter has to get to the heart of what Angkor means – what it means to Cambodians and to foreign tourists, to the Cambodian government, to those responsible for managing the site and to international conservation bodies. In this connection an intriguing part of the analysis is the way in which Winter brings the spectacle of Angkor into relationship with Pol Pot’s ‘killing fields’, which, as with other arenas in which the capacity of humans to commit the most brutal acts against fellow humans, also become a site for the tourist gaze. For the foreign tourist therefore genocide, guerrilla warfare, landmines, political turmoil, and a hidden, jungle-covered terrain – in short the ‘vision of a wild and hostile landscape’ (p. 104) – jostle with images of the grandeur and antiquity of Angkor. In his interviews with both international and domestic tourists Winter reveals different interpretations and images of Angkor, with foreign tourists seeing it primarily as a significant part of global heritage, as evidence of human cultural achievement, and as a place of intrigue, romance and mystery, whilst domestic tourists see the temple complex as a vital element in Cambodian national heritage, identity and history and as ‘an active religious and leisured landscape’ (p. 112). For the Cambodian government too with its focus on nation-building, development and reconstruction Angkor has a special meaning and intensity given that Pol Pot stripped Khmer and Cambodian identity of its historical and cultural anchors and destroyed the national economy. Therefore, as Winter amply and ably demonstrates the Angkor complex was destined to become ‘an intense focal point for both the restoration of a glorious cultural past and the aspirations of an economically vibrant future’ (p. 20); it has been deployed as ‘a definitive icon of modernity and national progress’ and ‘as a symbolic resource of cultural, ethnic, and national power’ (pp. 43, 45).
Winter has set a very high standard in providing us with a complex and incisive analysis of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the ways in which it has been symbolically (and materially) constructed, and how it has become a focus for different, often competing constituencies, agendas and interests. Above all he examines in admirable detail and with a deft touch the tensions between an expanding national and international tourism industry and management policies preoccupied with conservation and protection rather than with the appropriate development of a living heritage.