Using tourism to build our future and preserve our past

Using tourism to build our future and preserve our past

The past year has been a rough one for tourism in Cambodia, as vacation destinations around the world have been suffering from a lack of visitors due to the world financial crisis. But despite the temporary downturn, tourism remains one of the most promising sectors for development, as the Asian Development Bank predicts that Cambodia’s gross domestic product will grow by 4 percent this year.

As is the case with development in all sectors, tourism projects in Cambodia are often funded by foreign investments, meaning a lot of the profits do not stay in Cambodia. But, by bringing tourists with money into the country, the benefits of tourism investment indirectly benefit everyone. For people who work in the service industry, the benefits are obvious; they have more potential customers with more money. However, more financial resources for tourism can benefit all of Cambodia through an improved physical and social infrastructure.

While tourism has opened exciting opportunities for development in Cambodia, it also has also provided a unique opportunity for the preservation of the Kingdom’s culture and history.

These infrastructures include physical structures such as roads, hospitals and airports, but also societal infrastructures such as better law enforcement. While tourists might provide the economic incentive to create these things, the benefits are shared by native populations as well. Better roads for tourists are better roads for Cambodians and improved law enforcement makes everyone safer.
Cambodia has many of the natural wonders and idyllic locales that attract tourists, and according to Kuch Sopha, general manager of Cambodian Wonders Travel&Tours, the challenge is managing tourist hot spots.

“Cambodian students might have to think again when they overlook tourism, because I am sure that it will bring in lots of money and prosperity to the country,” Kuch Sopha said. “Especially if we know how to manage them well.”

While tourism has opened exciting opportunities for development in Cambodia , it also has also provided a unique opportunity for the preservation of the Kingdom’s culture and history.

The preservation of the forests and temples in Siem Reap has been made possible largely through foreign visitors and foreign aid. Many projects to maintain traditional culture, such as Apsara dancing and puppet shows, have also been undertaken with foreign audiences in mind.

Siem Reap is the most obvious example of how tourism can contribute to cultural preservation. In addition, it can also offer alternative employment for populations in rural areas who are engaging in environmentally-damaging industries such as logging.

Tourism development that integrates native populations into the creation and maintenance of a destination is called community-based ecotourism, and according to the Ministry of Tourism, 30 such organisations have formed in recent years. Ideally, these organisations try to build a tourism infrastructure that capitalises on natural beauty without damaging it, and also returns a maximum amount of the profits back to the community.

In the last two years, the government has begun to market Cambodia to TV viewing audiences around the world as the “Kingdom of Wonder”, helping to build up Cambodia’s international profile.

However, much still needs to be done in the country to make it tourist-friendly. The foundation for a tourism industry has existed for centuries, we just need to build upon it without knocking it down.

What's being preserved?
Siem Reap

As of this month, tourists will once again be able to enjoy the view from the very top level of Angkor Wat. The top tier, called the Bakan, has been closed for restoration by Khmer, German and Italian teams since October 2007. On December 31, Apsara issued a letter saying that the Bakan will be reopened, but only temporarily. No dates have been given for when it will be closed again, or when it might be opened permanently. Visitors must be in good health, wear “proper” clothes and be over 12 years old. Visitors must register in order to enter Bakon, and only 100 people will be allowed at the top at any one time and only for 30-minute periods. The Bakan will also be closed for every Buddhist holiday.

Private company Societe Concessionnaire des Aeroports (SCA), which runs all of Cambodia’s airports, has expressed its desire to begin flights from Siem Reap to Sihanoukville. If successful, the new route could bring thousands of additional tourists to Sihanoukville each year. SCA’s CEO Nicolas Deviller pointed to Siem Reap’s recent success as motivation for expanding flights to Sihanoukville. “[Siem Reap’s] gone through the most transformational revolution,” he said, citing growth in passenger traffic from 450,000 in 2001 to 1.7 million in 2007 and the addition of a 3,000-square-metre domestic terminal.
Koh Kong

Lodge Ltd has said it invested US$1 million in a newly-opened floating ecotourism resort named Four Rivers Floating Eco Lodge, located 22 kilometres from Koh Kong on the Tatai River. The resort has been built using environmentally-friendly materials that minimise the use of wood, and much of the site’s energy is gas and solar. “We welcome this investment as an ecotourism destination because it could be the first good example … with a clear understanding of environmental issues,” said Minister of Tourism Thong Khon. The Kingdom has 30 ecotourism resorts, he said, which could absorb just 10 percent of tourists – but there remains a lack of infrastructure and comfortable accommodation.