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The rise of the responsible tourist

The rise of the responsible tourist

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Although capitalism is usually not associated with altruistic intentions, tourism increasingly is proving to be a sector in which private gain and the public good can have a happy marriage

Corporate social responsibility, or CSR, is now a globally accepted buzzword in every industry, reworking economic trends and shifting cultural attitudes and behaviour. CSR acts as a form of self-regulation for companies, monitoring and alleviating the social, environmental and cultural effects of business activities.

Businesses want to show that they “care” amid the destruction and exploitation of Planet Earth. They are gradually recognising the benefits that responsible tourism can bring to destinations, in terms of employment and the preservation of cultural and natural heritage. Preserving historic architecture and environmental conservation in the name of promoting tourism may come across as less of an issue.

According to the Economic Institute of Cambodia, it is not always easy for visitors and foreign investors hoping to contribute by raising the bar of Cambodian culture. Traditional performing arts, historic restoration, handicrafts and other local aspects are often poorly managed and neglected, with few businesses undertaking or supporting initiatives in this area. Few Cambodian products and services are available that similarly meet the needs and standards of the industry. A vast majority of food products is imported into Cambodia from Vietnam and Thailand. Hence, tourism is not boosting the economy as much as it should.

Willem Niemeijer co-founded and now manages Khiri Travels, an independent operator running responsible travel tours in Indochina. Since its conception in 1994, the company has emphasised giving something back to the community and is widely considered a leader in socially responsible tourism by many.

“The tourism sector is one of the largest employers in the world,” Niemeijer said. “Employment is the way out of poverty. So when NGOs work together with the tourism sector, good things can be achieved.”

Merging the profit-oriented, private-owned tourism with less-commercial NGO initiatives can result in practices with emerging benefits such as fair compensation and promoting employment opportunities and resources. The company has developed its own not-for-profit division, Khiri Reach. According to Willem, the aim of Khiri Reach is to provide a way for organisations and private persons to support its initiatives without overhead costs diluting donations. He added, “Khiri Travel donates the use of the network of offices, transport and communication in Cambodia and Thailand, Laos, Vietnam. Many of the staff are volunteering their time and efforts.” Projects that can be found on the itinerary and visited by Khiri travellers are mainly the ones supported.

Stay another day
Susan Kennedy, a socially responsible tourism practitioner in Cambodia, is keen on the potential of socially responsible tourism’s popularity in Cambodia. She is helping prepare the upcoming Stay Another Day booklet, a tourist-oriented publication that showcases socially responsible tourism initiatives by both the private and NGO sectors.

Kennedy observed increased interest from private sector initiatives, many of which are reported in the booklet. “In 2007, it was about 20 percent businesses. In 2008 it was 35 percent, and this year it’s 40 percent,” she says, noting that both NGO and private-sector initiatives have to be evaluated based on their social, cultural and environmental sustainability.

The booklet itself has also gone private. From having been heavily donor-backed before, it now has a private publisher. Although prices for advertising an initiative have consequently increased, the ad renewal rate nevertheless stands at 65 percent.

“Going into the private sector will make the booklet financially sustainable,” Kennedy noted. She adds that many of the ecotourism projects in Cambodia are currently unsustainable without donor support, something she hopes will change in the future. “It can take generations to build the sector,” she said, implying donor funds are unlikely to last that long. “There is a need for the private sector to back things up”.

Community focus
An initiative publicised in the Stay Another Day guide is the Chambok Community-based Ecotourism site, in Kirirom National Park in Kampong Speu province. Initiated by environmental NGO Mlup Baitong in 2001, the project was created to reduce deforestation in the Kampong Speu area. Though the organisation’s objectives are foremost to protect the environment and its natural resources, Executive Director Va Moeurn is certain of how such a narrow approach was unsustainable when implemented and not inclusive of their other needs.

Today, the site is visited annually by nearly 20,000 local and foreign tourists, bringing in more than US$20,000 in net revenue for the 700 households in the area. Tourists come to the site either by contacting Chambok directly, or via any commercial tour company the initiative has developed links with.

The income from the site is now sufficient for the community to protect the forest and earn daily wages,” Va Moeurn said. He added, however, that Mlup Baitong supports other development initiatives in the villages. “We encourage the community to participate in tourism activities, but we tell them clearly that income from tourism is only additional income,” he explained.

Connecting nonprofit with for-profit activities is seen by Va Moeurn to be simpler in tourism than in other sectors. “The private and the NGO sector have the same purpose – to gain from tourism,” he said. “It’s easier to link the two in the tourism sector than in the forestry sector where the two often have different aims – such as logging versus protection of the forest”.

Similar sentiments are echoed by Yorth Bunny, coordinator of the Cambodia Community-Based Ecotourism Network (CCBEN). However, he also noted many community-based initiatives need private sector guidance to ensure quality standards in service as well as facilities. CCBEN facilitates such learning. “Our vision is for the initiatives to be self-sustainable, but that can’t be achieved in a short time,” he said, adding that both private and NGO actors have to work closely together to effect socially responsible change.

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