Under the scorching sun, an English tourist wearing a pair of loose trousers and wet T-shirt plants a seedling in the fertile soil of Koh Trong, a small island in the middle of the Mekong River opposite Kratie provincial town.
While his dirty hands were covering the root of the sapling with black soil, 32-year-old Sam Roberts said with a broad smile: “I’ve never planted a tree with my own hands before. This is the first time in my entire life.”
Roberts found out about the tree-planting campaign throught the tourist information centre in the town, while following his itinerary to view the province’s symbol: the endangered Irawaddy dolphins. “I learned that we can help the local community raise money by planting trees. It was a memorable trip and my name will always remain next to the tree, perhaps it will grow quite tall when I visit next.”
Roberts was one of a few dozen tourists participating in the “one tourist, one tree” campaign launched by the Ministry of Tourism after a Green Tourism Meeting in Siem Reap two weeks ago. The nationwide campaign has since been advertised on TV and travel websites, encouraging tourists to help revive forests while enjoying their vacations.
The campaign also aims to encourage tourists to revisit Cambodia, and to bring family members and friends with them to see the growth of the tree they planted. More than 4,000 trees have been planted by local and international tourists since the campaign’s launch on Koh Trong.
Ron Pheara, Kratie’s tourism department director, puts its success down to close co-operation among tourist venues and businesses, NGOs and community residents.
“We’ve been working with the Koh Trong tourism community to gather small trees for tourists who love the environment. To participate in the campaign, they pay US$5 for a seedling, small shovel and a piece of land to plant their own tree or a ‘family tree’, as well as a wooden name plaque to put next to their seedling. After they plant it, people from the community will taking care of the tree. They will receive a photo of the growing progress of their tree with their name bearing on the wooden plaque by email in three or six months.”
Ron Pheara believes that the campaign attracts groups and families who are likely to return, resulting in more income flowing into the local community. Residents living near the newly planted trees also receive a fee from the tourists to take care of the trees. Farmer Chun Samean said helping tourists plant trees not only provides him with more income to run his farm, but also brings a more festive spirit to the island.
“It’s an easy and happy job. I just bring seedlings and the wooden plaque to them and they plant by themselves. I also received some money as a gift from them when they ask me to take care of their trees while they’re away,” he said.
The United Nations World Tourism Organisation has said that responsible tourism is becoming increasingly popular. Thirty four per cent of tourists would choose to stay in the environmentally-friendly hotel even they cost more than other accomondations, and 55 per cent would carry their booking via travel agents that help benefit local communities and the environment, according to the organisation.
During the Green Tourism Meeting, Tourism Minister Thong Khon said that the ministry is encouraging responsible tourism and local businesses to use resources that can mitigate negative impacts on culture and the environment.
“The ‘one tourist, one tree’ campaign will help protect the environment, and reduce climate change, global warming and other natural disasters,” he said. “It also can promote Cambodia as a green tourism destination. If one tourist plants a tree, he or she might bring the whole family and friends for the next visit, which will boost the number of tourists coming to Cambodia.”
The campaign’s success hinges on collaboration among all those who have a stake in the industry, he said. “This campaign is not only being implemented in Kratie and Siem Reap provinces. Tourists can plant trees everywhere they go. The campaign is not only targetting international tourists. Cambodian people who love environment can also plant trees at the destinations they visit,” the minister said.
His ministry is working with a host of governmental agencies to raise the profile of the campaign on National Tree day on July 9 in Seam Reap province with a public tree-planting event.