How luxury travel can ease damaging effects of overtourism

As increasing levels of mass tourism in Cambodia’s major cities threaten to place strains on local infrastructure, representatives from the luxury travel industry offer a model of high-value, low-volume tourism they believe is key to preserving the Kingdom’s natural splendour.

Robin Spiess
May 31, 2019
How luxury travel can ease damaging effects of overtourism
Photo: Sam Jam

Cambodia’s thriving tourism industry has long been defined by a kaleidoscope of all-too-familiar images: the dreadlocked-draped backpacker slouching towards Pub Street, elephant pants billowing in the wind. The busload of ageing tourists dutifully snapping shots of King Father Sihanouk’s statue before being bundled back into air-conditioned comfort. The children swinging off the ancient stone sculptures of Angkor Wat, their parents lost in a well-thumbed Lonely Planet.

But this past year has marked a turning point for Cambodia’s travel market. A handful of new five-star resorts – Alila, Six Senses and Shinta Mani Wild – have launched in the past six months or so, and most have set up camp far from the heart of Cambodia’s traditional tourist hotspots. No longer solely selling an image of ancient temples, the new resorts are instead pulling wealthy travellers to the country’s beaches, jungles and islands, far from the hustle and bustle of major cities.

“At a luxury level, travel in Cambodia has basically consisted of flying into Siem Reap and flying out again – until this year,” said Jason Friedman, who runs hospitality consulting agency JM Friedman & Co. “Now, luxury resorts are working to open up the country. This is the year of Cambodia.”

Less is more

Cambodia has been enjoying a tourism boom, with the industry becoming a major pillar of the economy. Total foreign visitors in 2018 increased by 11% from the year before to reach more than six million, and the government has been vocal in setting its sights on driving even more travellers to the country’s most popular vacation spots in coming years. Each of the Kingdom’s three airports have seen increasingly high traffic recently; the number of travellers through Siem Reap remains steady, tourism in Phnom Penh is on the rise, and Sihanoukville in particular has seen double-digit year-on-year growth in foreign visitors for months.

But rising tourism rates may have unforeseen consequences, as the infrastructure in Cambodia’s most populous cities struggles to bear the burden that rising tourist populations place on it.

“There are infrastructure problems and safety issues associated with overtourism, and the more people you have travelling to a destination, the more wear and tear,” Friedman said.

There is a problem of mass tourism in Siem Reap and Sihanoukville as most travellers… are not interested in visiting the countryside or the islands.

Jason Friedman

The persistent power cuts in Phnom Penh and complaints of trash pile-ups in Sihanoukville are evidence that strains on infrastructure are already apparent – and without improvements, Cambodia’s major cities may not be prepared for the country’s ever-increasing tourism numbers.

The issue with traditional tourism in Cambodia is that the focus has long remained on increasing the number of tourists in the country rather than increasing each tourist’s average monetary yield, said Friedman. Many tourists are unlikely to spend a considerable amount of money on their travels – or if they do, they often spend that cash in foreign-owned businesses, like the Chinese-owned casinos that line the Sihanoukville coast. The immediate effect of tourism, then, is not always positive for the cities and communities that attract the most visitors.

The answer may be in expanding the niche market of luxury tourism – attracting small numbers of people willing to pay big bucks for their travel.

“When it comes to tourism, it’s always better to have ten people paying $1,000 dollars a day than to have 100 people paying $10 a day,” Friedman, whose hospitality business services all four “Shinta Mani” resorts in Cambodia, explained. “[Luxury resorts] can come into an area and promote responsible tourism… we offer jobs to people in the community, manage waste, and bring respectful tourists who are paying a lot of money to see a place the way the locals want to have it.”

For a resort like the recently-opened Shinta Mani Wild, which offers a luxury camp experience in a previously unprotected wildlife corridor, the main selling point exists in its location and the natural beauty of its surroundings. Secluded from busy streets and crowded tourist sites, its 100-square metre glamping tents are scattered along a 1.5-kilometre river and outfitted to reflect a bygone era reminiscent of Jacqueline Kennedy’s trek through the Cambodian countryside. Launching with only five tents late last year, the total number of tents available now stands at 15, and the resort has no immediate plans to continue expanding. But exclusivity doesn’t come cheap: the price per tent per night starts around $2,000.

Sangjay Choegyal, general manager of Shinta Mani Wild, explained that all four of the luxury Bensley Collection resorts in Cambodia – which include Shinta Mani Siem Reap, Shinta Mani Angkor, Shinta Mani Shack and Shinta Mani Wild – operate with an eye on limiting the number of travellers who visit them, catering to smaller numbers who in turn leave a smaller footprint.

“The downsides of overtourism have been seen in so many places around the world, where local economies don’t feel the benefits of having millions of tourists visiting, using their resources, leaving rubbish and paying very little for visiting,” Choegyal said.

“Our model of luxury tourism… is all about reducing the number of people who can visit this beautiful part of Cambodia… and at the same time charging a lot for the luxury of visiting, so that the local economy sees a huge advantage from having these few visitors.”

Seeing nothing but green

Luxury tourism not only reduces strain on public infrastructure – in many cases, resorts that set up shop off the beaten path are willing to channel significant funding into the preservation of the wildlife and forests that surround their businesses, protecting their investments by safeguarding the land.

Built as a public-private partnership, Shinta Mani Wild’s success as a profitable venture is inextricably linked to the preservation of the wilderness that surrounds it. The business is based on a conservation model that has seen the resort’s designer and owner, Bill Bensley, work closely with the Wildlife Alliance, the Royal University of Phnom Penh and the Cambodian government to protect the corridor on which it is built.

To this end, a chunk of resort profits are consistently channelled into the funding of a wildlife ranger station on the property, which patrols the 350-hectare swathe of land to prevent poaching, illegal logging and other forms of encroachment.

“We can and do pay for anti-poaching patrols, we conduct research on wildlife areas, and we are the ones paying for this land to be protected,” said Friedman. “If we didn’t do it, no one else would.”

In order to sustainably manage vulnerable wildlife areas, a public-private partnership that keeps tourist rates low and monetary returns high is “one of the only ways to do it”, Choegyal added.

While it is unlikely that the Kingdom will shift its focus from high-volume tourism to a high-value model anytime soon, the recent rise of new far-flung five-star resorts is attracting a different sort of adventure-seeker than the typical Southeast Asian traveller. A trend toward protection of forests and local ways of life may be forming – to be enjoyed only by those with the money to afford it.

“When it comes to protecting Southeast Asia’s culture and wildlife, I believe public-private partnerships are the way of the future,” said Friedman. “I don’t believe everybody has a right to see and experience everything – if you want to play, you have to pay.” 

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