Emphasis will be on eco-tourism when Cambodia reopens to visitors

PHOTO: South China Morning Post

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Tourism operators in Cambodia, the second-most vaccinated country in Southeast Asia (after Singapore), are putting pressure on the government to reopen borders to fully inoculated international tourists as soon as November.

When they return, those tourists will be visiting a newly emerging eco-tourism destination.

“Eco-tourism is moving forward globally and is very important in Cambodia,” says Nick Ray, tourism consultant for the Cambodia Sustainable Landscape and Eco-tourism Project (CSLEP), a multimillion-dollar initiative that is spearheading a change in focus for the industry.

“The pandemic has changed this even more as people seek open spaces, nature, meaningful and engaging experiences and sustainable travel.”

The US$54 million (S$73 million) CSLEP represents the World Bank’s largest tourism investment in Cambodia.

The five-year initiative will span seven provinces, taking in the Cardamom Mountains – Southeast Asia’s largest intact rainforest – the Tonle Sap Lake’s flooded forests and sacred Phnom Kulen in Siem Reap.

“With the scope and scale, there’s the chance to put eco-tourism at the centre of Cambodia’s tourism offerings,” says Ray.

Botum Sakor National Park in the Cardamom Mountains, Cambodia. PHOTO: South China Morning Post 

The CSLEP project has thus far identified 16 sites that will appeal to local and international travellers.

Money will be ploughed into improving access to these remote areas, developing hiking and cycling trails and visitor centres, and training locals in hospitality, waste management and litter awareness.

Eco-lodges will eventually be constructed, but first will come campsites.

“One element to come out of the pandemic is a huge increase in Cambodians camping,” says Ray.

“While it’s great to see more Cambodians exploring the wild, this is unregulated. There have been a lot of wildfires, health and safety issues when wild camping on cliff tops, littering and potential damage to endangered flora and fauna. There needs to be a system in place to control this and protect the wildlife and environment.”

Three pilot schemes will kick-start the CSLEP programme – at the seven-tiered Chreav Waterfall in Kampong Speu province, Chrok La Eang Waterfall in Pursat province and Anlong Thom village – the project’s poster child – in the Phnom Kulen National Park, where the international NGO Archaeology and Development Foundation – Phnom Kulen programme has been in operation since 2008.

“We mix conservation, development and archaeological research,” says its director JB Chevance. “[But] very poor communities live here.”

Although Cambodians flock to Phnom Kulen, the country’s most sacred mountain and the birthplace of the Khmer Empire, to leave offerings at the giant reclining Buddha statue at its peak, bathe in the national park’s two waterfalls and visit the River of a Thousand Lingas, the side of the mountain on which Anlong Thom stands remains off the tourist trail.

Cambodian tourists visit Chi Phat. PHOTO: South China Morning Post

“It’s very remote and difficult to access,” says Chevance. “These are very isolated villages with strong archaeological heritage and important tourism potential.”

In November 2020, a commune-based tourism centre opened in Anlong Thom. In April, a second opened a two-hour jungle hike away, in Popel village.

The centres provide information about the area’s flora and fauna and archaeological treasures, which include sculpted riverbeds, caves, ancient waterworks and temple ruins.

Villagers lead treks through the national park and serve their visitors hearty Cambodian dishes.

Handicrafts on the brink of extinction are promoted at the centres, where rattan baskets, mats, knives and fishing traps crafted by village elders are sold. 

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“[CSLEP] can bring us better exposure and the opportunity to improve facilities and better train people in these isolated communities,” says Chevance.

“However, eco-tourism is a bit of everything and nothing these days. It’s essential that locals from the villages get the benefits and we don’t see concrete roads winding through conservation areas.”

When it comes to eco-tourism, Willem Niemeijer, CEO of Yanna Ventures, also stresses the need for a correct approach: “If you do it right, eco-tourism projects can really help with conservation efforts,” he says.

In 2017, Yanna Ventures, Minor Hotels and the NGO Wildlife Alliance launched the Cardamom Tented Camp – a shining example of how eco-tourism can benefit both conservation efforts and remote communities.

Profits from the camp fund rangers who patrol the rainforest in search of illegal hunters and loggers, and the camp trains and employs locals, providing an economic lifeline to communities while removing the necessity for illegal activity.

Eco-lodges will have an important role to play environmentally in Cambodia. PHOTO: South China Morning Post

“This is key because most hunters and illegal loggers [were] from these villages,” says Niemeijer.

“Promoting responsible travel also helps Cambodians realise they have such beautiful nature and they’ve got to take care of it.”

Another Cardamom success story is the Wildlife Alliance’s Chi Phat Community Based Eco-tourism (CBET) project.

Locals and the area’s delicate ecosystem have been reaping the rewards since 2007, when it began.

“Before the CBET was established, people were suffering from intense poverty, with malnutrition, no access to education and families were too indebted to take relatives to the hospital,” says On Sovann, a former poacher who became involved with the project in 2008 and is now its chief.

“Money lenders were involved in illegal trade of timber and wildlife, and many locals were hunters and loggers.”

Archaeology and Development Foundation members conduct a tour in Phnom Kulen National Park. PHOTO: Archaeology and Development Foundation

Since 2007, 337 families have been employed and given a helping hand to develop eco-lodges and homestays, jungle treks, boat and mountain biking tours and other activities by the CBET.

Local farmers have stopped slash-and-burn practices in the forest.

“Once established, CBET projects can attract tourism to the area,” says On.

“This promotes the conservation of wildlife and forests while offering alternative livelihoods.”

And it is essential communities are kept at the core of such initiatives, says Bill Barnett, managing director of hospitality consultant C9 Hotelworks.

Mountain bikers in Chi Phat. PHOTO: South China Morning Post 

“You have to be careful not to take an institutional approach but bring communities in and work with them so there’s no encroachment, poaching and cutting of timber,” he explains.

“At the end of the day, Cambodia doesn’t need any more Sihanoukvilles or gaming-centric tourism centres that are only aimed at foreigners.”

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.