Towards Sustainable Heritage Tourism

Constructed theory on sustainable heritage tourism: Holistic approach

After examining different perceptions regarding Angkor heritage tourism and the issues of sustainability, a theory of sustainable heritage tourism is constructed to reinforce the existing theories on the subject and academically contributes rather limited to the existing literatures of sustainable heritage tourism.

Sustainable heritage tourism requires participation from three key actors namely tourists, local people, and the local expert groups. But it should be noted that many of the most pressing problems are multifaceted, involving a web of interrelated causes that it is impossible to address except a triangular perceptions analysis. It needs to be noted that reality can go beyond these perceptions. The triangular perception approach provides another methodological and analytical vantage point based on problems examined broadly through the actors’ perspectives.

Satisfactory tourist experiences with positive and beneficial participation from the local people plus the sound management of the heritage tourism from the key experts group, including relevant policy makers, are the bottom line to having sustainable heritage tourism. A balance of interests and participation of these three actors is necessary.

Tourist experience depends on tourist motivations, expectations, and the tourist destination itself which includes both tangible and intangible heritage products. Tourists’s perceived authenticity of the destination is the cornerstone of heritage tourism. It is therefore necessary for the local people and expert group preserve the historical and cultural assets of the tourist destination.

Positive and beneficial local participation depends much on the local political economic structure. The capacity building for the local people to understand and integrate their cultural values in the tourism industry, and get benefits from tourism is strongly required. Unless they learn about the economic value of preserving local heritage they would not appropriately participate in heritage tourism. The role of the state particularly the local authority is to assist the local people to do so.

Expert group perceptions are important to examine the current issues of heritage tourism based on what improvement and redirection of heritage tourism development policies can be carried out in time. The collaboration among the key expert groups to find the common interest and ground for sustainable heritage tourism management is a must.

Based on the perceptions from tourists, local people, especially local experts, a holistic approach towards sustainable heritage tourism is constructed as follows with three pillars and six principles:


1. Conserve and preserve the heritage sites and environment

2. Respect the integrity and authenticity of the local culture

3. Integrate the cultural heritage with the livelihood of the local community

4. Encourage intercultural dialogue between host and guests in order to improve tourist experiences and local participation

5. Provide solutions to development needs of local communities (especially capacity building)

6. Stakeholder collaboration with balanced interests and common objectives (especially in a dynamic economic benefits distribution)


The heritage site and its environment are the first pillar for sustainable tourism; social and cultural development and preservation should be the second pillar, while economic development and interests should be the third.


First Pillar: Environment/Place

The place here refers to physical heritage sites and the surrounding natural environment. According to the triangular perception analysis, place/environment is the most important asset of heritage tourism. The conservation and preservation of the heritage sites (temples) is necessary to sustain and develop heritage tourism. The main motivation of the tourists is to visit the temples. For the local people, the temples are the symbol of their nationhood and national identity.

The Angkor heritage tourism case study demonstrates that the current development of modern construction around Angkor Park and the massive use of underground water can destabilize the structure of the Angkor temples and improper sewage disposal is seriously damaging the environment of the heritage site. It is thus necessary to manage the place and environment. The existence of the place and environment give meaning to both tourists and local people. Without place there is no tourism. It is therefore compulsory to conserve and preserve the heritages sites and environment as the first priority.


Second Pillar: Social and cultural assets

Intangible heritage is of great value and adds to the tangible heritage site. The preservation of local cultural values is important not only for the tourists searching for authenticity but also for local community development given culture can not be detached from development. Strong and integrated family and social structure are a precondition for sustainable development.  The maintenance of traditional spatial and social organization and landscape can also attract cultural tourists to the community. It is therefore safe to argue that conservation, preservation, and integration of local cultural and social assets/heritages at the tourist destination and the livelihood of the local community must be a second priority or on equal basis with the first priority for any tourism development policy.


Third Pillar: Economic interests

Financial resources are needed to preserve and manage heritage sites. Income from tourism is necessary for the local community development. Economic management such as the construction of hotel and other hospitality services in the tourist destination plays an important role in tourism development. Good services contribute improved tourist experiences.

The imbalanced relationship of power among the complex interconnected network of tourism industries and businesses creates uneven socio-economic development which in turn leads to the destabilization of the tourism industry. The dynamic and ethical distribution of economic interests in the tourism industry is necessary to have sustainable heritage tourism. Capacity building for the local people to get employed in the tourism industry is one of the tools.

In short, in order to have sustainable heritage tourism, the three pillars of sustainable heritage tourism (place/environment conservation and preservation, social and cultural heritage conservation, and economic generation) have to be upholding with the six key principles.


Call for redirection of tourism development in Angkor


 The current tourism development in Angkor Park is going in the opposite direction from a holistic approach. Economic interests are the first objective while other issues such as heritage site management and local landscape preservation come after. It is therefore necessary and urgent to reconfigure the structural management of Angkor heritage tourism in order to safeguard its future.

Source: Chheang, Vannarith (2011). The Political Economy of Heritage Tourism.

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