Winter, T  (2002)  'Angkor Meets Tomb Raider: setting the scene', in International Journal of Heritage Studies, Vol 8, 4: 323 - 36.

The film Tomb Raider contains scenes shot at Angkor, producing  'a contradictory clash of two culture industries, one embedded in the superficial, reductive and aesthetically driven paradigm of Hollywood cinematography and the other being a notion of heritage built around largely modernist distinctions between '"high"  and "low" culture' (323). This clash also raises some key management problems about preservation and development: the dominant notion of architectural conservation has neglected aspects of imaginary reconstructions of the site. The film has apparently already had an effect on the perceptions of tourists and local guides.

The history of Angkor is summarised pages 324 - 6. Waves of cultural and social change are apparent in the site, and a particular series of kings of Cambodia developed the site in particular ways. Europeans in the 1860s  'encountered a labyrinth of monumental structures entangled with tree roots and lichen... the very aesthetics of... [this]... abandoned, wild landscape... enabled... [a discovery of]... Angkor as a lost civilisation' (325). French colonisers attempted to both conserve and develop Angkor  'as the apogee of Khmer civilisation... [and promised]... to restore the Khmer race, nation and culture to its former glory' (326), a project reinvigorated by the unfortunate recent history of Cambodia and Pol Pot. There is now an international co-ordinating committee to safeguard the site, which has been declared a World Heritage Site. At the same time, the recent Cambodian government has sponsored a tourist industry which includes rapidly rising numbers of visits to the site, a process encouraged by a recent 'language of "cultural tourism"' (327).

This language in particular  'rests on 1970s academic theory that focused on tourism/tourist taxonomies' (327), and these taxonomies have been seen as both positivistic and too simple, reducing  'the complex social and cultural realities of today's global tourism' (327). Thus cultural tourism has been difficult to guide actual practice. One consequence has been the controversial decision to grant a licence to film Tomb Raider.

The film clearly embodies 'the demands of instantaneous, spectacular entertainment' (328). The lead character, Lara Croft, is a classic postmodern synthesis of  'the physical and the virtual... high and mass culture' (329). The actual site was combined with a series of fictitious sets, based on Hollywood notions of ancient civilisations, including Egyptian hieroglyphs and secret underground crypts containing treasure -- the results of  'a superficial and Orientalist palette' (329). There were also some references to recent violent Cambodian history. Overall, the film was far from representing the high quality cultural tourism suggested by international committees.

That the film was permitted indicate some problems with management of sites like Angkor. For example, international attention was directed primarily at architecture, archaeology, and the physical preservation of the temples. Management was dominated by architects. This proved inadequate to stave off modern proposals for tourism and film production: there was 'an inadequate appreciation of the imaginary dimensions of Angkor's protection' (330). The film company guaranteed preservation of the buildings, but Cambodians had little control over representation. International safeguards were diluted by the need to avoid any suggestion of 'hegemonic cultural imperialism' (331), which involved giving a great deal of autonomy to local organisations. This left international organisations unable even to monitor local activities, including  'Angkor's representation in the global media' (331).

Cambodian authorities were keen to permit the film in the interests of global publicity and to counter the recent negative images of Pol Pot and genocide. Increased tourist numbers were of primary interest, and being able to handle high-profile developments would help to legitimize the current government of Cambodia. For these Cambodians,  'any distinction made between  "mass tourism"  and the more refined  "cultural tourism"  largely remains an external imposition' (332). Nor were academic distinctions particularly clear: thus  'the conceptually weak language of UNESCO and WTO enables the government to... [operationalize]... their superficial language of "cultural tourism"  into the context of Cambodia's political governance' (332). So 'Tomb Raider was able quietly to go ahead without being flagged as a glaring contradiction' (332). [Winter claims he is only describing contradictions and not taking sides {although his condemnation of Tomb Raider seems clear enough}]. Mass projects contradict aims of  'cultural refinement' (332).

Apparently, the film has already had an impact on tourist encounters  (333 -- little evidence is actually presented here). The World Monuments Fund wants to develop  'a more authentic spatial narrative across the site via imposed routeing', but interviews conducted with tourists suggest that Tomb Raider  'has generated competing narratives' (334). This partly reinforces recent notions of the tourist as an active agent rather than just a consumer, so that a visit  'becomes an encounter between material and imagined spaces... an act of reflexive, creative production' (334). One interviewee specifically mentioned Lara Croft. Strangely enough, Lara Croft helps re-energise the 19th century narrative of colonial exploration, discovery and adventure, and this helps to resist more modern notions of cultural tourism. Local guides also now 'proudly incorporate Tomb Raider stories and routes into their tours' (334). Tourists therefore encounter the site as 'a fusion of diverse, interweaving spatial and imaginary texts' (335), and the official language of cultural tourism is simply one of those.

The analysis overall seems to support McCannell's notion of  'empty meeting grounds', where tourists encounter mere spectacles, and  'the boundaries across authenticities, realities and fiction become ever more blurred' (335). Angkor runs the risk of becoming  'a culturally and historically disembedded visual spectacle' (335). This seems to be a danger with any similar tourist development. Management frameworks may need to change, to prevent local agendas from dominating, and a more adequate theorisation of tourism, to include the imaginary dimensions, needs to be developed.

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