Rising ecotourism could help preserve indigenous cultural practices,
say local minority representatives, but communal land-grabbing and
government indifference stand in the way
Photo by: TRACEY SHELTON and SEBASTIAN STRANGIO
Tourists relax at Ratanakkiri's Yeak Loam lake, which is maintained as a community commission by the ethnic Tampuon villages that ring its shores.
TOURISM to the remote northeast is booming, say Ratanakkiri provincial tourism authorities, who argue the province's ethnic minority communities are uniquely placed to benefit from the upswing in visitors to the region.
Despite a global economic downturn that has seen international arrivals to the Kingdom decrease, Ratanakkiri welcomed 90,744 visitors in the first nine months of the year, up 12 percent on the same period last year.
Pal Vuth, director of the tourist office in the provincial capital Banlung, said international visitor numbers - numbering 15,236 this year to September - had been boosted by the improved road and air links to the province, including the opening of the international border into Vietnam's Gia Lai province earlier in the year.
"There is now more transportation and more services, [and] an international border crossing so tourists can cross from Vietnam directly into [Ratanakkiri]," he said, adding that visitors were drawn to the national parks and the ethnic minority villages that dot the province.
At the end of October, China announced it was providing Cambodia an US$80 million loan to pave the 118km stretch of road linking Banlung to National Road 7 at Stung Treng's O'Pong Moan, which tourism officials say will further increase tourist traffic.
Deputy Provincial Governor Sim You Song said local authorities were focusing on the province's ecotourism potential, promoting its natural beauty as an alternative to more expensive Asian destinations.
"We have promoted the tourism industry by informing people in the cities to visit the northeast region of Cambodia, particularly Ratanakkiri, rather than visit other countries," he said.
Another of the province's exotic attractions - its patchwork of distinct ethnic minority groups - is likely to witness the effects of the increase in tourist numbers, with local communities saying a growth in ecotourism could help preserve the local environment.
In Ratanakkiri, the government grants natural attractions to minority communities as "community commissions", which allow groups to maintain the sites independently.
Pal Vuth said that under the commissions, such as the one controlling Yeak Loam, a volcanic lake 5km from Banlung, the majority of money earned from the tourist sites goes to preserving the natural beauty of the sites.
"Since they live nearby, it is easy for them to manage tourist sites. The benefits belong to the communities," he said.
Trach Noung, a representative of the Tumpuon community-run Yeak Loam Lake Tourism Management Committee, said the community earned around 800,000 riels per month from admissions to the lake, which were poured directly into improving infrastructure at the site.
"To attract more tourists to Yeak Loam Lake, we try to keep everything around the lake in a natural state," he said. Six other sites, including lakes and waterfalls, are controlled in this way by local communities.
Some community representatives also hope ecotourism will encourage the preservation of traditional customs.
Van Sokim, 25, a Krung indigenous representative from Tangkropu village in Ratanakkiri's O'Chum district, said his community welcomed tourists for the financial benefits, but said it could also help preserve indigenous traditions.
"Krung indigenous people do not care about their culture, they do not wear their traditional dress," he said. "If there were tourists visiting the community, people would preserve their culture in order to attract tourists."
Ek Yothin, provincial program director of the Indigenous Community Support Organisation, agreed that tourism offered many benefits to minority communities.
"The positive effect is that communities can benefit from selling the visitors arts and crafts," he said.
However, a fresh influx of outsiders could accelerate other developments that are eroding traditional cultural practices, he said.
"Some people come as tourists to assess the land of the villagers, to see what the possibility is for a rubber plantation. They do not come to help the community," he added.
Dam Chanthy, the Jarai director of the Banlung Highland Association, said tourism would be hurt by the threat of land-grabbing by rich businessmen, cases of which have multiplied across the province since 2004.
The Jarai village of Kong Yu, in O'Yadao district, is currently fighting a high-profile case against Keat Kolney, sister of Finance Minister Keat Chhon, over 450 hectares of communal land she claims to have purchased in 2004.
"If there is land-grabbing among ethnic minorities, it will strongly affect the number of tourists," Dam Chanthy said. "Most tourists want to see places where ethnic minority people live and farm, but if those lands are grabbed, where will they live and farm?"
Pal Vuth said that tourism, properly managed, could help preserve indigenous culture.
"The tourism authorities never talk about tribal peoples' tradition," he said. "The government takes care of Angkor Wat but ... [it] does not
motivate tribal people to maintain their traditions."