In this blogpost I’d like to describe my experiences with ecotourism in Cambodia. A Mlup Baitong intern and I visited two communities lately, with whom the organization has developed ecotourism projects. We wanted to get to know the projects primarily but also begin to carry out an analysis of the two places with regard to their sustainability and their success. Later, we would share our results with the local people.
The tourism projects have emerged in the course of establishing “Community Protected Areas” in order to protect forests in Cambodia and additionally mitigating climate change. The communities would stop and protect the forest from illegal logging. But the logged wood was usually the only source of income for many families in the communities, demanding a sustainable alternative income. Therefore, the idea of offering ecotourism activities arose.
The Community Chambok in Kampong Speu was quite successful in doing so. The project has now been running for about 15 years and it has improved a lot. Per month Chambok has an average of 1,000 visitors, of which about 200 are foreigners. I experienced Chambok as very welcoming and cosmopolitan with a very engaged community. This is somewhat a contrast to the rather politely restrained way in which a lot of people here usually act. Chambok’s main attraction is a large waterfall, which can be reached after a 30 minute hike. Tourists will usually be accompanied by tour guides through the jungle. Other offers ensure a more cultural experience, for example a show of traditional Cambodian dances or the opportunity to cook bamboo stuffed with Sticky Rice. The tourist activities take place in the Visitors Centre, which also hosts the restaurant run by the village women who alternate its management. The visit is completed by a stay in one of the many homestays located in the village. The money, which is earned through the tourism, goes partly to the provider of a service, and partly to a common community fund which is used for further development of the project.
Chambok is one of the most successful Ecotourism projects in Cambodia and has already received many awards.
Chrok La Eang is another Mlup Baitong Ecotourism Project, located in Pursat, a province north of Phnom Penh. Compared to Chambok the mandatory waterfall (In Cambodia, apparently a must have attraction) is also provided as the project is located in the mountains and offers beautiful landscapes. But at the moment the site is still quite unknown. The tourism that already takes place is restricted to locals who do not usually stay overnight. Homestays or a guide program have yet to be developed. The revenue is therefore not too high and a development difficult. It is very important that activities are created that constitute a unique selling point. It is easy to resort back to the successful Chambok concept. However, the regions are very different so concepts only work out partially. In addition, of course, the competition increases among the different tourist destinations if all offer the same things. We therefore hope that the community contributes its own new ideas to the project and Chambok won’t be simply copied. The potential would be there anyways.
In my opinion, the general difficulty in establishing Ecotourism is to always keep a balance between economic success and environmental protection. Further developments in favour of tourist offers are, at first glance, of course, always desirable, but sometimes harm the ecosystem. So the question what is more important at that moment arises. A good example for that is transportation. Because the ways to the villages are often quite long and sometimes difficult to pass, motorbikes, cars and busses are used a lot. A switch to e.g. bicycles would not only reduce emissions, but also the noise level, which has led to ejection of animal species in the forest in the past.
Another issue is the use of revenues. Of course, the financial concept is coherent and logical. However, the implementation is sometimes difficult especially when it comes to the priority of investments. Should the education of local children or the building of a new parking lot be supported primarily? Such questions are always difficult to answer. Usually, the community decides conjoined what expenditures are made. What is the most appropriate at a given time, is always debatable. Problems arise, when many outsiders try to bring in suggestions. This happens naturally from a good motivation, but quickly decisions are made which, if one considers the context, are not particularly conclusive. This occurs especially when people only visit the project shortly and do not recognize and understand the connections properly.
Ecotourism is definitely not an easy issue and unfortunately there are many examples of projects failing quickly. I also do not believe that this form of tourism can ever completely replace the “normal” one. Nevertheless, in places where Ecotourism works, it can be a valuable contribution to the development of a region. I’m curious to see what will change in the Ecotourism projects of Mlup Baitong during my time in Cambodia.
By Wibke Hagemeier, volunteer