Can Cambodia develop and become an eco-friendly tourist destination at the same time?
By Sacha Passi
For more than ten years Vannak Kang has revelled in a lifestyle that allows him to share the natural beauty, complicated history and colourful culture of Cambodia with visitors to his homeland. “I want to show a different type of tour for holidaymakers, I want them to learn and understand Cambodia besides the temples,” says Vannak, managing director of Asia Adventures, a tourism company specialising in community-based and eco-tours.
Cambodia’s northeast provides a raft of opportunities for travellers seeking an eco-friendly holiday. Along the Mekong River in Kratie and Stung Treng provinces, and further east among the protected forests of Mondulkiri and Ratanakiri provinces, eco-tourism experienced a growth of 9.7% between 2011 and 2012. Nationwide, tourist arrivals reached just over 3.5 million in 2012 – an increase of nearly 25% from the previous year.
While Phnom Penh and Siem Reap will likely remain the country’s most visited destinations, if Cambodia is to remain on target for an expected four million tourists in 2014, and five million in 2015, the value of the Kingdom’s delicate ecosystem cannot be underestimated.
“Cambodia is blessed with natural resource endowment including forest cover… that accounts for approximately 59% of total land area. But rapid development has been putting a lot of pressure on the country’s forests,” says Sovanny Chhum, programme analyst for the environment and energy wing of the United Nations Development Programme in Cambodia.
The Cambodian government recently approved a national policy and strategic plan for green growth between 2013 and 2030, which aims to develop the economy while considering the environment, cultural preservation and natural resource sustainability.
“This is the holy grail of eco-tourism – that economic incentive is created to protect the natural environment because people come to value it intact, versus extracting its resources,” says Tracy Farrell, senior technical director for Conservation International’s Greater Mekong sector. “There are many good examples of eco-tourism around the world but it is still a newer model in Cambodia.”
Many of the country’s 56 eco-tourism sites are structured around a community-based tourism model that takes travellers into the homes of Cambodians to generate income for remote communities, although the incentives for locals remain minimal.
“The revenue that can potentially reach communities is fairly small. For example a homestay or a few meals tends to only benefit a handful of families and, in many cases, leaves others out,” says Farrell. “And word of mouth takes a while to grow these smaller businesses, whereas competing pressure and income from timber or wildlife harvesting is very tempting.”
While the northeast of Cambodia is a popular choice for eco-tourism, it is also the site of the quickly diminishing Prey Lang forest, the largest intact lowland forest in Southeast Asia. Home to indigenous Kuy people and at least 40 endangered plant and animal species, it is Cambodia’s most important remaining watershed. However, the forest is under constant threat from illegal logging and is a lucrative market for economic land concessions. The sap from one resin tree is worth about $750, although a logger will only earn about $10 per tree. Overall, though, logging remains a highly profitable trade that is impacting on the Kuy, who rely on the forest for their long-term livelihood by selling the sap at markets to earn a sustainable income from the environment.
“The laws against land grabbing, clearing public land and trafficking endangered species need to be enforced across the country. Poor people living in or near forests need options to pursue alternative livelihoods so they are not forced to resort to destroying forests and wildlife,” says John Willis, director of programmes for Wildlife Alliance.
Cambodia’s quest to preserve its natural resources faces many challenges, but increasing demand for green tourism is pushing the issue higher up on the agenda. The Ministry of Tourism recently made moves to promote urban centres as ‘green cities’, implementing initiatives such as the ‘One Tourist, One Tree’ campaign – which sees visitors paying $5 to plant a tree and be kept abreast of its growth – and the ‘Eco-Club’, which seeks to raise environmental awareness and encourage better management and disposal of plastic bags.
A long road remains ahead but such schemes are, at the very least, signs that environmental concerns are beginning to be heard. There will need to be more where they came from if Cambodia is to remain an attractive destination for a growing tourism market.
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