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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Officials, operators eye ecotourism as growth sector

Officials, operators eye ecotourism as growth sector

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But expert warns that ecotourism could be more about pandering to wealthy Westerners than actually helping local communities

Photo supplied

Villagers preparing a traditional meal in Bantey Meanchey province.


16%

of Cambodia's GDP

comes from tourism

Thailand, by contrast, earns less than 12 percent of GDP from tourism revenue, according to recent statistics. In 2000, 6.3 percent of Cambodia’s GDP came from the tourism sector.

CAMBODIA is keen to capitalise on the environmental craze by positioning the Kingdom as one of the world's most exclusive and uncharted eco-tourism destinations, officials say.

"The development of ecotourism in Cambodia has no limit," said Thok Sokhom, deputy director of international cooperation and Asean department at the Ministry of Tourism.  "The Cambodian ecotourism sector is growing."

The Kingdom already sees more than two million tourist arrivals per year. That number is growing, but the government is eager to spread the benefits of the tourist dollar beyond the hub of Siem Reap and the Angkor temples.

Seven new tourism projects in the rural northeast are in the works, which will help diversify the Kingdom's top-earning industry and bring the benefits of economic development to isolated rural communities. Officials also hope transportation infrastructure and better sanitation in the jungle provinces of Stung Treng and Ratanakkiri will follow.

About 16 percent of Cambodia's gross domestic product comes from tourism, up from 6.3 percent in 2000, and tourism receipts have risen from US$347 million in 2003 to US$1.4 billion four years later, according to government figures.

Ecotourism on the rise

No specific statistics for ecotourism arrivals are available, but private companies and government officials insist the sub-sector of the industry is booming.

Right now,

ecotourism [in

cambodia] is still

in its early days.

"About 30 percent of the total number of tourists in the country [last year] went to the northeastern provinces to see dolphins, forests and ecotourism villages," said Thok Sokhom.
Mark Ellison and Yin Chouleang, who founded Asia Adventures, a Phnom Penh-based  sustainable ecotourism company in January 2007, say the industry is small but growing.

"Right now, ecotourism [in Cambodia] is still in its early days," Ellison told the Post, "It doesn't compare with Thailand, Vietnam or Laos, but the beginnings are there."

But it is not just about providing people with an amazing holiday, Ellison said.

"Ecotourism ... can help people in communities understand the value of nature and become an endless source of income for these people," he said.

No coherent policy

While the Ministry of Tourism is an active promoter of sustainable tourism, others, such as the Ministry of Mines and Energy, are less keen, Ellison said. "The areas where ecotourism are being promoted have more valuable [natural] resources. The other ministries are eyeing the areas for other things. There seems to be limited joined-up thinking between the ministries," Ellison said.

Another problem that Cambodia's ecotourism industry could face is the country's rapid deforestation.

"When people envisage ecotourism, they envisage forests. A decrease in forests will make Cambodia less attractive," Ellison said. Despite the potential drawbacks, ecotourism shows all the signs of becoming a significant part of Cambodia's growing tourism sector - with massive ancillary benefits for local communities.

Thailand has a sizable and lucrative ecotourism industry, and experts say it could serve as a model for Cambodia.

"Communities with natural beauty and culture want to develop ecotourism sites," said Thok Sokhom.

Cambodia's recent "Kingdom of Wonders" advertising campaign makes ecotourism one of the pillars of its campaign.

Appearing on CNN International, advertisements feature ecotourism sites prominently, an attempt to show the world Cambodia has more to offer than just Angkor Wat.

Customers, however, need to be careful when choosing an ecotourism trip. Not every ecotourism company delivers on these promises.

Tim Forsyth, from the Development Studies Institute at the London School of Economics, warned that tourism operators may claim to be sustainable, but their rainforest or cultural experiences may not be joint ventures with the local community.

Forsyth said that there's a possibility that "cultural or green themes pander more to what they [tourism operators] think rich, Western tourists want, rather than actually engage with local ecosystems and cultures."

For Ellison though, sustainable ecotourism is simple.

"It is just treating the country and the people you meet with respect."

Ecotourism: Just a marketing ploy?

Ecotourism is not always what it’s cracked up to be. Tim Forsyth, from the Development Studies Institute at the London School of Economics, warns that not every ecotourism company is a joint venture with the local community.

Forsyth wrote “there’s a concern that eco-tourism is being used in many less developed locations as a springboard for unsustainable mass tourism.”

This means that eco tourism can be simply nature-based tourism and not concerned with sustainability or local participation. “[Ecotourism] can actually wreak a lot of damage on fragile ecosystems or increase the pressure upon remote people,” Forsyth has said in a lecture, saying that communities can become dependent on tourism and not develop skills that give them flexibility in the economy. Forsyth emphasizes “sustainable tourism,” should take into account all aspects of tourism.

Ecotourism is “the development of a niche product aiming to add value to tourism packages by focusing on green or cultural themes.” Forsyth is a UK-based tourism expert.

BY CHRISTOPHER SHAY

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