As the country's reputation as a destination for debauchery fades and Angkor Wat
takes center stage, another sort of tourism is emerging that could attract a
horde of new visitors: eco-tourism.
Monks at Angkor Wat ó now view the rest of the country.
Pitching the untrammeled wilderness,
hill tribe villages and abundant wildlife to potential visitors means the number
of destinations are expanding for those looking to get away from it
"It's nature, added to culture, drinking and partying," says Tanja
Wethekam, owner of MASH Melting Pot Guest House in Sihanoukville.
Cardamoms Outward-bound, an affiliate of Wethekam's, offers boat trips from Sre
Ambel into the untouched wilderness of the Cardamom Mountains. It brings
visitors into intimate contact with the area's wildlife - from leeches to
While neighboring countries like Thailand have turned
forest treks into virtual theme parks with gift shops and elephant rides, the
quest for an authentic and remote trekking experience has lured travelers
farther abroad. Tour operators like Wethekam say some are headed
"That's a market you have to create," she says. "In Cambodia, it is
very small. Trekking is not really an option - it has not been discovered yet.
Ratanakkiri and the Cardamoms are basically it, as opposed to Thailand, where it
has been going on for 20 years and people jump out of the bushes to sell you
Thailand, which annually attracts 10 million tourists, or 70
percent of the total arriving in the Mekong region, has been criticized as going
about tourism development in the wrong way.
Critics like Anita Pleumarom,
coordinator for the Bangkok-based Tourism Investigation & Monitoring Team,
say that tourism has ravaged the very ecosystems and indigenous communities that
lure travelers in the first place.
In a 2001 review of Mekong tourism,
Pleumarom wrote that development projects with ties to military and government
officials had combined with exploitative tourism practices and severe
environmental degradation to take a heavy toll on the country.
undesirable side effects of tourism had led to the "proliferation of the sex
industry, AIDS, drug abuse, gambling, crime and cultural erosion".
Cambodia says the mistakes made in Thailand will not be made here, despite the
rapid growth in the number of tourists.
"We never destroy nature to
develop tourism," says Minister of Tourism Veng Sereyvuth. "We try to integrate
tourism development with the specific environment. It has to be sustainable. How
can you go on, in the long run, if you destroy the very product of tourism that
But other than the often-tenuous designation of land as
national parks, Sereyvuth admits the government has not passed specific laws to
manage a potential explosion of eco-tourism in the country.
means the wilderness areas will suffer the same fate as other destinations
worldwide is a question raised by an increasing number of community and
conservation advocates. But whether people will come regardless of the
consequences, say tourist organizers, is no longer in doubt.
"There is a
trend already underway," said George Ehrlich, manager of Exotissimo, a travel
agency. "The more tourists come, the more they will spread into the country. The
more remote areas will be opened up by the Lonely Planet type of travelers, and
then the less adventurous can follow."
It is already far easier for
tourists to penetrate what were until recently inaccessible areas of the
country. An initiative of the Greater Mekong Subregion and bankrolled by the
Asian Development Bank has resulted in the construction of a number of "economic
corridors" in Southeast Asia. Among those are highways, ports and airports, as
well as the associated development of hotels, shopping facilities and
While the initiative promises to pour huge amounts of foreign
investment into struggling Mekong countries, a study by the UN trade body two
years ago found as much as three-quarters of it could flow offshore to foreign
companies, leaving destination communities high and dry.
And if local
tourism companies are bought out by international corporations under
deregulation that will come with membership in the World Trade Organization, the
situation could get even worse.
There are still some organizations that
are optimistic about eco-tourism and its ability to provide a sustainable
tourism market to help local communities and their environments.
Cambodia Community Based Eco-Tourism Network, which was founded last year,
promotes tourism that improves the living conditions of local communities while
preserving their customs and the environment.
The network is made up of
16 organizations, including Oxfam-GB, Flora and Fauna International, local NGO
Mlup Baitong, and French NGO Osmose. It already has projects in Kirirom and
Ratanakkiri and more are planned.
Extreme Cardamoms Out-wardbound, which
is not yet a member of the network, says it too tries to integrate local
communities into its operation by hiring local guides and donating medicines and
cash to communities.
While it is too early to say whether Cambodia can
avoid the pitfalls encountered in Thailand, what is certain is that the
government here will aggressively push the tourism market.
"I can say
with confidence that in five years, you will see a new Cambodia in terms of
tourism development," says Minister Sereyvuth, referring to the projected
creation of hundreds of thousands of jobs, millions of tourists arrivals and
billions of dollars in new revenues. "I say this: tourism is the answer to the
future of this country."