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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Tourism with a twist

Tourism with a twist

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Touch Man, above right and ox cart below.

It is evening at the Angkor temples, and the scene is frantic. Hundreds of foreign

tourists pile out of buses and scramble up Phnom Bakheng in a desperate dash to catch

the sunset, before dutifully returning to their vehicles.

After one or two days at the temples they will be off - many of those on package

tours will fly straight out of Siem Reap to another Asian city, their Cambodian experience

complete.

But in a small corner of Kampong Speu province, two and a half hours from Phnom Penh,

the tourist scene is somewhat different. A new cart led by two oxen rolls along a

red dirt path in the forest towards Kirirom National Park. Five passengers sit on

wooden slats, their feet nestled in straw, and listen to their Khmer guide.

"Between 1993-99 there were a lot of trees here," says Touch Man in Khmer,

as they head towards a bamboo filled-forest, a shady stream and a waterfall. "Later

from 2000-2001 the forest disappeared gradually because people have no farms, they

live on poaching wildlife, cutting trees and killing animals."

He asks his passengers to get off the cart, then takes them on a walking tour through

the forest. He stops at one tree and explains that its bark is used to treat diarrhea.

"And this tree is called snoul," he says enthusiastically of another. "The

leaf is used for dying clothes into black. It was used a lot during the Pol Pot regime,

because everybody wore black clothes."

Touch Man is part of an enterprising new tourism endeavor that will officially open

on January 4. Determined to help "make the forest come back, to stop illegal

cutting of trees, hunting and trapping", he and his community have cooperated

with local NGO Mlup Baitong, and created one of the country's first Community Based

Eco-Tourism projects, referred to as CBETs.

This small patch of forest has also become part of a much broader debate about the

benefits and problems associated with general tourism, and whether tourism can, as

the government claims, help reduce poverty.

So what is CBET? The newly-established Cambodia CBET Network describes the concept

as "tourism managed in a way that leads to equity, empowerment and poverty reduction

for Cambodian people, and at the same time, protects and conserves natural, cultural

and social resources".

Mlup Baitong is a member of the network, and views CBET as managed and run by the

community members themselves, with "all of the profits directly benefiting the

local community".

Kirirom is a practical example of this tourism debate. Touch Man heads a villager

sub-committee comprising 14 elected members from nine villages in Chambok commune,

which makes all the major decisions about the project.

In August the community signed a two-year memorandum of understanding with the Ministry

of Environment to control 70 hectares in the national park as a community conservation

area. Members collect entrance fees and income from the ox-cart rides. Money not

used for conservation or wages goes into a community fund to benefit the 2,700 residents.

CBET proponents say that only such community-based tourism can really alleviate poverty.

They claim 'normal' tourism cannot do so, and harms the environment as resources

are not managed properly.

"With general tourism, tourist visits are often marketed and organized by private

travel companies," says a Mlup Baitong leaflet. "The bulk of the profits

leave the community, and only a few private individuals may benefit from the enterprise."

The eco-tourism network goes further, stating that uncontrolled impacts of tourism

are eroding the unity of local communities.

"Tourism in Cambodia is currently contributing to a growing inequity. There

is little or no access to the benefits of tourism for poor people," it states.

"Poor people and communities are also receiving negative impacts from tourism."

Cambodia is in an unusual position regarding tourism - it is the one area of the

economy that has the potential for stellar growth. So it is not surprising that Minister

of Tourism Veng Sereyvuth disagrees.

He says the poor are already gaining many benefits from tourism. As for the charge

that normal tourism destroys the environment, Sereyvuth says the government is working

on sustainable programs.

"Tourism can be very harmful if you don't manage it properly," he says.

"There are a lot of regulations in place in terms of zoning - not to destroy

the architecture of places, the height of the buildings,"he says.

"It is about how we introduce the proper management systems to control the inflow

of tourists and cater for hygiene and not pollute. The waste water treatment project

in Siem Reap is part of this."

Sereyvuth says it does not help to paint one type of tourism as good, and the other

bad. There are, he says, many types of tourists: niche market visitors, backpackers,

group tours, and shoppers, and all can provide benefits.

"It is not that normal tourism destroys and pro-poor tourism doesn't destroy.

It is about management," he says. This requires harnessing the opportunities

provided by conventional forms of tourism to help the community.

"Normal tourism definitely provides benefits to the poor. If you have those

people coming, what do they do? They eat, they travel, they shop. When they shop,

what are those goods? Why don't we engage our community to produce those goods? We

need to identify what these [local] people are good at so they can supply these products."

And the responsibility for helping communities harness the tourist market, he says,

lies also with NGOs and local authorities. The government cannot do everything, and

NGOs have an important educational role to play, including helping people learn skills

to produce and refine products.

Yet others see it differently. Graeme Brown manages an eco-tourism project in Ratanakkiri

called Developing Remote Indigenous Village Education (DRIVE).

He says the government's focus on increasing the numbers of tourists and building

infrastructure means poverty alleviation is not being achieved.

"Government, NGOs and large donor organizations have to recognize they actually

have to invest in building human capacity," Brown says. "You can build

lots of infrastructure, roads, airports and all the rest, but unless the poor have

the capacity to be involved in tourism they are not going to see the benefits."

However Sereyvuth maintains that building roads and infrastructure, which helps tourism

expand into rural areas, does alleviate poverty. His ministry estimates that one

million tourists will visit by the end of this year. Increasing the number of tourists

is vital to building human capacity.

"If we are not able to have growth in terms of tourist numbers, how do you attract

foreign investors?" he says. "If there is no market, how can we do anything?"

The government certainly touts tourism as a key factor in its poverty reduction strategy

paper (PRSP).

"Adopting pro-poor tourism policies requires more than simply inserting the

word poverty in various government policies and strategies," states the PRSP.

"It requires a fundamental shift in thinking about the forms of tourism development

that will benefit the poor."

So is tourism being used effec tively to that end? Ouk Ry of the private sector working

group on tourism thinks not, and the reason for that is a lack of money within the

ministry.

"It is not happening because the Ministry of Tourism doesn't have enough [of

a] budget to implement that policy," says Ouk Ry. "All the money goes to

the Ministry of Defense. If you had $80 million go to the Ministry of Tourism, I

think they would make Cambodia big."

The PRSP also claims that tourism has already helped to cut poverty. It assumes that

each visitor spends at least $500, which "helps feed two Cambodian people for

one year".

Yet a recent report by the Cambodia Development Review states that in the first six

months of 2002, less than $6 per tourist went to the finance ministry. That did not

include visa fees, departure tax or government share of Angkor Wat entry fees.

Critics say those who benefit most from tourism are foreign and domestic companies.

Fuel company Sokimex, for example, has the concession selling entry tickets to the

Angkor temple complex and takes a substantial cut of the fees.

Ouk Ry is concerned that such a small percentage of the tourist dollar in practice

reaches the government's coffers. In order to change the situation, he says, the

government must properly enforce the law and collect tax.

Away from the policy level debate, and back at the grassroots in Kirirom, Touch Man

and his community face a more immediate challenge to ensuring the success of eco-tourism:

changing the mindset of local tourists.

The community has banned cars and motorbikes from the eco-trail. Local tourists,

many of whom went there by motorbike before it became an eco-site, are not happy.

"There is a 50 percent chance of success," says Man, "but gradually

the tourist numbers will drop because people don't like walking and motorbikes aren't

allowed. For every 20 who come with motorbikes, only three or four stay."

Yumiko Yasuda, an advisor with Mlup Baitong, shares his concerns. She says most Cambodian

people have never experienced eco-tourism or learned about nature conservation as

a part of tourism.

"Normally they just go and play in the waterfall and throw the garbage,"

she says. "They don't understand about the environment and they don't care what

happens to it."

One point that all agree on is that CBET is a fledgling industry here - the only

functioning projects seem to be the Kirirom initiative and another in Yeak Laom commune

in Ratanakkiri. DRIVE's Graeme Brown says a developed CBET industry is clearly a

long way off.

"World experience says that it takes four to eight years to really establish

something in the community," he says. "It takes that long to build capacity."

The project in Kirirom could be carried out in many pockets of wilderness throughout

the country, and many in the government and NGO world will monitor it as a test-case.

Touch Man says the community realizes the environment and their way of living is

at stake. He says they will be happy if they make money, because they will not need

to fell trees and hunt wildlife.

"But if that becomes a failure, the community people cannot change their way

of living - hunting and cutting trees forever," he says.

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