Demand for sustainable, community-based tourism experiences in the Kingdom is on the rise – from wildlife conservation initiatives in Ratanakiri to indigenous family homestays in the Cardamom Mountains. Tourism experts and social entrepreneurs note that the country’s unique natural landscapes and rich biodiversity act as a magnet for environmental and socially-conscious international visitors.
As low-impact, community-run ecotourism programs continue to bloom around the Kingdom, experts consulted by B2B believe this niche in the tourism industry holds tremendous potential, despite Cambodia’s often insufficient standards of conservation. Ecotourism, these experts say, can serve the dual purpose of generating profit for the industry as well as protecting the country’s fragile ecosystem and wildlife.
“We have found most of our clientele – generally those from North America, Europe, and Australia – are attracted to the idea of responsible, sustainable travel which benefits local communities and is environmentally friendly,” says Ethan Crowley, business development manager at destination management company ABOUTAsia Travel.
Untapped green potential
Despite the obvious appeal they enjoy, Crowley says few true ecotourism options actually exist in the Kingdom. Many of them are located in the Cardamom Mountains, a biodiverse mountain range in the Southwest that sprawls over the provinces of Koh Kong and Pursat.
The mountains are home to a number of well-established eco-resorts, such as Rainbow Lodge and 4-Rivers Floating Lodge, two environmentally friendly businesses situated close to the Thai border, in the village of Tatai.
In order to fully realise this potential, however, the mountain range needs a serious infrastructure overhaul, reckons Crowley, who thinks that travel to the region is still hampered by a poor road network that makes for long, bumpy drives. “With upgraded infrastructure the region could thrive,” he adds.
Cambodia’s Northeast is also thought to be extremely promising in terms of ecotourism. At the most recent Mekong Tourism Forum in Sihanoukville, Dr. Ashley Brooks, land use specialist at the World Wildlife Fund’s Tigers Alive initiative, highlighted a unique opportunity to develop tiger safaris in the Eastern Plains Landscape, a vast forested region stretching across Ratanakiri, Mondulkiri, Kratie and Stung Treng provinces and a small part of Vietnam.
Jens Thraenhart, the executive director of the Mekong Tourism Coordinating Office, a body that oversees the regional development of the sector, considers this area to hold the greatest potential for wild tiger recovery in Southeast Asia. “As tigers sit atop the food chain, it is essential that the whole ecosystem in which they live is preserved, hence the ecotourism potential,” he told B2B.
Perhaps the future of the sector lies in the luxury end. Cambodia already boasts a very successful high-end eco-resort, Song Saa Private Island, the country’s first private island luxury resort located in the Koh Rong archipelago off the coast of Sihanoukville. 2017 will bring another luxury option in the ecotourism market, Shinta Mani’s 6-star tented camp, set midway between Phnom Penh and the coast.
“These properties, and other future high-end eco-resorts in the future, will be influential in bringing the low footfall, high margin tourism that has proven successful in other developing nations,” says Crowley.
Ecotourism and the government
While a Ministry of Tourism official claimed they had a policy of promoting ecotourism in Cambodia, further details remained elusive at time of publication as to what role it played in the country’s national strategy for the tourism sector. Some of our interviewees complained of inaction on the part of the state when it comes to promoting sustainable initiatives.
“Unfortunately the government does not support ecotourism, they focus on mass tourism, which is a pity,” said Nut Cham, who works as a guide for the Chambok Community, a group of nine villages on the border of Kirirom National Park engaged in a community-based ecotourism project.
Sheery Dancona, the founder of eco-resort Nature Lodge in Mondulkiri provincial capital Sen Monorom, also believes the authorities are doing little to support the development of ecotourism. She says she is still waiting for even the most basic services to run her business, such as electricity, water or waste disposal. “These aren’t available in Mondulkiri for anyone living out of town. Everything had to be created and organized DIY, including our access road,” she says.
Dancona thinks the government could have immediate impact in the industry with simple pieces of legislation, such as banning imports of plastic food containers, outlawing all forms of deforestation, encouraging private sector reforestation with tax benefits, and promoting a stricter enforcement and a better management of crimes against wildlife.