While income generated by ecotourism has the potential to help preserve wilderness areas and sustain villages, not all 'ecotourism' businesses are living up to their responsibilities
Cycling in the Chambok Community Based Ecotourism Site. Courtesy Mlup Baitong
With more than 43,000 square kilometres of protected forests, national parks, wildlife sanctuaries and marine ecosystems, Cambodia has tremendous opportunities for ecotourism.
While ecotourism ventures are on the rise across the Kingdom, the line between what helps and what harms the environment - and the definition of ecotourism itself - is blurry.
For example, an environmental impact assessment report on a company given a land concession in Kandal province to build an ecotourism site concluded the work would pollute and destroy the habitats of both humans and animals.
The line is further blurred with authorised constructions in protected areas and the forcible displacement of locals to create room for tourism ventures which claim to be eco-friendly.
So how does one differentiate between legitimate ecotourism and tourism for mere economic gain?
In 1990, the International Ecotourism Society defined ecotourism as "responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people".
In principle, ecotourism has minimal environmental impact, uses recycling and efficient sources of energy, conserves water and wildlife, and promotes sustainability within local communities. It requires the informed consent of local communities to use their land or territory, respects local culture, creates jobs for local people and benefits local economies.
According to Janet Newman, owner of the eco-friendly Rainbow Lodge in Koh Kong province, there are two main types of ecotourism in Cambodia: community based ecotourism (CBET) and private sector ecotourism.
In 1997, CBET was defined as tourism that takes environmental, social and cultural sustainability into account, she said.
"It is managed and owned by the community, for the community, with the purpose of enabling visitors to increase their awareness and learn about the community and local ways of life," Newman said. She said private sector ecotourism should try to emulate this definition.
A particularly good example of CBET in Cambodia is a site next to Kirirom National Park in Kampong Speu province.
The Chambok Community Based Ecotourism Site was created in 2001 by Mlup Baitong, a local Cambodian NGO devoted to environmental education and natural resource management, and a member of the Cambodia CBET Network.
The site boasts guided nature trails to a 40-metre-high waterfall, bird watching, traditional oxcart rides and homestays with local villagers. All revenues stay in the community and are used in part to conserve the forest.
View from hut at Rainbow Lodge, Koh Kong. STEPHANIE MEE
Courtesy Mlup Baitong
Project Coordinator Prak Thearith said before 2001 there was a lot of illegal hunting and logging in the area and the people were poor.
"We wanted to provide the villagers with income and encourage them not to destroy the environment," Prak Thearith said.
"For example, using ox-carts and drivers to transport tourists instead of illegal timber, or training hunters to be nature guides instead of hunting rare animals."
Today, income in the village has increased, literacy rates are up, infrastructure has improved, and the villagers are almost entirely self-sufficient. And villagers have an incentive to preserve the forest rather than deplete it.
Private sector tourism in Cambodia is also on the rise, notably with the huge successes of Rainbow Lodge in Koh Kong province and Yaklom Hill Lodge in Ratanakkiri province.
"I would say the potential for this kind of tourism market in Cambodia is very high, considering the abundant resources," said Sompong Sritatera, manager of Yaklom Hill Lodge.
But he warns many people abuse the word ecotourism to promote their business, with little or no background knowledge.
"For example, some people think that when you come to Ratanakiri, anything you have done here is ‘ecotourism'," he said. "Same for some business owners that market their place as offering ecotourism activities without even knowing the basics of it."
The mangrove walkway at Peam Krasop Wildlife Sanctuary, Koh Kong. STEPHANIE MEE
Both Sompong Sritatera and Newman agreed that while ecotourism has the potential to grow in Cambodia, it will be difficult to implement properly unless people take steps to preserve the environment and local cultures rather than simply profit from Cambodia's natural resources.
"I do believe that there is a certain amount of will on behalf of the government to endorse and embrace ecotourism," said Newman.
"Good examples of this are the mangrove walkway at Peam Krasop wildlife sanctuary and the ranger stations at Thma Bang and Chipat, all in Koh Kong province.
"However, many of these projects have been set up by organisations like Wildlife Alliance and Conservation International."
Newman said the future of successful ecotourism in Cambodia lay in education and awareness.
"We must ensure that Khmer people themselves understand the importance of such projects and see that some benefit will be passed on to them and their community," she said.
"This comes from education, not only of those in the field, but also education at an early stage at schools of the importance of the forests and rivers.
"Only if we can persuade the government and the people that there is a benefit to them in environmental and wildlife preservation will it ever happen.
"Therefore, the more people that insist on and support eco-friendly ventures, the more this message will filter through."