Celebrity tourism

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - SHOWBIZ - Lara croft:tomb raider HAU BOON LAI

IN Siem Reap, Cam­bo­dia, the Ta Prohm Tem­ple in the Angkor Wat Com­plex is also pop­u­larly known as the Tomb Raider Tem­ple, in hon­our of the part Hol­ly­wood movie Lara Croft: Tomb Raider has played in pop­u­lar­is­ing the an­cient mon­u­ment af­ter the movie’s re­lease in 2001.

The movie has also con­nected the coun­try to one of its vo­cal sup­port­ers in the form of lead ac­tress An­gelina Jolie, who has gone on record for her love of Cam­bo­dia on sev­eral oc­ca­sions.

Her feel­ings are well-re­cip­ro­cated by the Cam­bo­di­ans, par­tic­u­larly those who have ben­e­fit­ted from the coun­try’s grow­ing tourism re­ceipts. In Siem Reap, where the World Her­itage Site of Angkor Wat is lo­cated, she is re­garded as a folk hero of sorts.

This is no idle wor­ship ac­tress an­gelina Jolie has done much to raise cam­bo­dia’s pro­file, say Siem reap tour guides. – Cam­bo­di­ans feel con­nected to Jolie be­cause she has not only been in the coun­try as an ac­tress, but also a bene­fac­tor through the years.

Dur­ing re­cent floods that have in­un­dated large parts of the coun­try and which threaten to con­tinue do­ing so, Jolie re­port­edly do­nated money to re­lief ef­forts.

This is only her lat­est en­gage­ment with the coun­try that she cred­its for open­ing her eyes to the world.

She has given mil­lions of dol­lars and pledged mil­lions more through her char­i­ta­ble foun­da­tion to a con­ser­va­tion project in Sam Laut, a moun­tain range in Cam­bo­dia that is home to some en­dan­gered an­i­mal species.

It was in Siem Reap that she went for her photo shoot as the new face of Louis Vuit­ton. Say what you will about the com­mer­cial aspects of it, the cam­paign does draw at­ten­tion.

Home sweet home

Jolie also has a home in Cam­bo­dia – a struc­ture built on stilts, like many of the coun­try’s tra­di­tional homes, in the jun­gles of Bat­tam­bang, where her project is lo­cated.

But the deep­est con­nec­tion they have with Jolie is for her first adop­tion of a Cam­bo­dian boy, Mad­dox, in March 2002. The grow­ing-up years of the 10year-old have been fol­lowed with great in­ter­est by Cam­bo­di­ans, who see in him the hope that Jolie has helped bring to the coun­try.

Ac­cord­ing to re­ports then, it was her adop­tion of Mad­dox that made the smooth-sail­ing de­ci­sion by Cam­bo­dia’s King Norodom Si­ha­moni to grant Jolie with a Cam­bo­dian ci­ti­zen­ship, in 2005.

On a re­cent trip to Siem Reap, I had the op­por­tu­nity to sit down with a group of tour guides and ho­tel em­ploy­ees at their break­fast ta­ble and lis­ten to their tales of Jolie’s con­tri­bu­tions to tourism in the prov­ince.

Tour guides find it eas­ier to con­nect with tourists through a com­mon in­ter­est in Jolie – their chat­ter about the ac­tress not only helps to pass the time while on bus trips be­tween des­ti­na­tions, it also goes down well with tourists who are quite in­ter­ested in know­ing what she had been up to in Siem Reap.

Which restau­rants does she eat at? Which ho­tel does she stay at? Which re­tail shops does she buy from? Which helicopter com­pany does she use? Where does she go when she is in Siem Reap? What kind of per­son is she? Is she a good tip­per?

If you are in­ter­ested in the an­swers, do visit Siem Reap and find out from the tour guides – the jolly bunch I was with were at pains to tell me that I mustn’t re­veal any of the an­swers or they wouldn’t have any­thing to talk about with their charges.

One in­di­rect con­tri­bu­tion of Jolie’s to­wards Cam­bo­dia’s tourism is her pure pres­ence. A ho­tel sales ex­ec­u­tive said that Cam­bo­dia’s rep­u­ta­tion as one of the poor­est coun­tries in the world af­ter sev­eral decades of war­fare, with a ma­jor­ity of cit­i­zens liv­ing on less than US$1 (RM3) a day, of­ten leads to hes­i­ta­tion among po­ten­tial tourists as they are con­cerned about the liv­ing con­di­tions.

Never idle

How­ever, such con­cerns are of­ten al­layed by the knowl­edge that a pam­pered Hol­ly­wood celebrity like Jolie vis­its Cam­bo­dia reg­u­larly.

In­deed, while there are ob­vi­ous signs of poverty, the poor of Siem Reap com­port them­selves with great pride and show more ini­tia­tive than des­per­a­tion. You are more likely to have some­one try­ing to sell you a bunch of bananas than beg­ging on the streets. There are quite a few good ho­tels fea­tur­ing good rates and friendly staff.

The num­ber of tourists vis­it­ing Cam­bo­dia crossed the two mil­lion mark in re­cent years, more than half of which head to Siem Reap for the an­cient won­der of Angkor Wat. While the coun­try has been at peace since the 1990s, mak­ing it safe for tourists, it is the pub­lic­ity about a peace­ful Cam­bo­dia af­forded by Jolie’s fre­quent ref­er­ences that has made it easy to at­tract vis­i­tors.

And the more vis­i­tors there are, the bet­ter the eco­nomic sit­u­a­tion for the peo­ple. As it is, Siem Reap has some of the best pub­lic roads in Cam­bo­dia, with street­lamps at night that put more de­vel­oped na­tions to shame.

With tourism comes greater de­mand for bet­ter-ed­u­cated Cam­bo­di­ans, and one good sign of this is that there is an in­creas­ing num­ber of pri­vate but rea­son­ably-priced English-lan­guage-medium schools that have sprouted to meet this de­mand.

Jolie’s con­tri­bu­tions to Cam­bo­dian con­ser­va­tion, tourism and the ul­ti­mate well-be­ing of the coun­try en­cap­su­late the power of a celebrity to do good. While there are crit­ics who have cast doubts about her in­ten­tions, the ben­e­fits of her as­so­ci­a­tion are, in the minds of the tourism­re­lated work­ers I spoke to, real and tan­gi­ble, and some­thing to shout about.

Her com­mit­ment is not easy to match and the re­turns, as she has tes­ti­fied, are life-chang­ing for the bet­ter. If only more celebri­ties gave back to so­ci­ety in this fash­ion. n In this col­umn, writer Hau Boon Lai pon­ders the lives, loves and lib­er­ties of celebri­ties.

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