Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - The eco-tourism effect - hype or hope?

The eco-tourism effect - hype or hope?

The eco-tourism effect - hype or hope?

Tourism1.JPG
Tourism1.JPG

As the country's reputation as a destination for debauchery fades and Angkor Wat

takes center stage, another sort of tourism is emerging that could attract a

horde of new visitors: eco-tourism.

Monks at Angkor Wat ó now view the rest of the country.

Pitching the untrammeled wilderness,

hill tribe villages and abundant wildlife to potential visitors means the number

of destinations are expanding for those looking to get away from it

all.

"It's nature, added to culture, drinking and partying," says Tanja

Wethekam, owner of MASH Melting Pot Guest House in Sihanoukville.

Extreme

Cardamoms Outward-bound, an affiliate of Wethekam's, offers boat trips from Sre

Ambel into the untouched wilderness of the Cardamom Mountains. It brings

visitors into intimate contact with the area's wildlife - from leeches to

Macaque monkeys.

While neighboring countries like Thailand have turned

forest treks into virtual theme parks with gift shops and elephant rides, the

quest for an authentic and remote trekking experience has lured travelers

farther abroad. Tour operators like Wethekam say some are headed

here.

"That's a market you have to create," she says. "In Cambodia, it is

very small. Trekking is not really an option - it has not been discovered yet.

Ratanakkiri and the Cardamoms are basically it, as opposed to Thailand, where it

has been going on for 20 years and people jump out of the bushes to sell you

silverware."

Thailand, which annually attracts 10 million tourists, or 70

percent of the total arriving in the Mekong region, has been criticized as going

about tourism development in the wrong way.

Critics like Anita Pleumarom,

coordinator for the Bangkok-based Tourism Investigation & Monitoring Team,

say that tourism has ravaged the very ecosystems and indigenous communities that

lure travelers in the first place.

In a 2001 review of Mekong tourism,

Pleumarom wrote that development projects with ties to military and government

officials had combined with exploitative tourism practices and severe

environmental degradation to take a heavy toll on the country.

The other

undesirable side effects of tourism had led to the "proliferation of the sex

industry, AIDS, drug abuse, gambling, crime and cultural erosion".

But

Cambodia says the mistakes made in Thailand will not be made here, despite the

rapid growth in the number of tourists.

"We never destroy nature to

develop tourism," says Minister of Tourism Veng Sereyvuth. "We try to integrate

tourism development with the specific environment. It has to be sustainable. How

can you go on, in the long run, if you destroy the very product of tourism that

you have?"

But other than the often-tenuous designation of land as

national parks, Sereyvuth admits the government has not passed specific laws to

manage a potential explosion of eco-tourism in the country.

Whether this

means the wilderness areas will suffer the same fate as other destinations

worldwide is a question raised by an increasing number of community and

conservation advocates. But whether people will come regardless of the

consequences, say tourist organizers, is no longer in doubt.

"There is a

trend already underway," said George Ehrlich, manager of Exotissimo, a travel

agency. "The more tourists come, the more they will spread into the country. The

more remote areas will be opened up by the Lonely Planet type of travelers, and

then the less adventurous can follow."

It is already far easier for

tourists to penetrate what were until recently inaccessible areas of the

country. An initiative of the Greater Mekong Subregion and bankrolled by the

Asian Development Bank has resulted in the construction of a number of "economic

corridors" in Southeast Asia. Among those are highways, ports and airports, as

well as the associated development of hotels, shopping facilities and

resorts.

While the initiative promises to pour huge amounts of foreign

investment into struggling Mekong countries, a study by the UN trade body two

years ago found as much as three-quarters of it could flow offshore to foreign

companies, leaving destination communities high and dry.

And if local

tourism companies are bought out by international corporations under

deregulation that will come with membership in the World Trade Organization, the

situation could get even worse.

There are still some organizations that

are optimistic about eco-tourism and its ability to provide a sustainable

tourism market to help local communities and their environments.

The

Cambodia Community Based Eco-Tourism Network, which was founded last year,

promotes tourism that improves the living conditions of local communities while

preserving their customs and the environment.

The network is made up of

16 organizations, including Oxfam-GB, Flora and Fauna International, local NGO

Mlup Baitong, and French NGO Osmose. It already has projects in Kirirom and

Ratanakkiri and more are planned.

Extreme Cardamoms Out-wardbound, which

is not yet a member of the network, says it too tries to integrate local

communities into its operation by hiring local guides and donating medicines and

cash to communities.

While it is too early to say whether Cambodia can

avoid the pitfalls encountered in Thailand, what is certain is that the

government here will aggressively push the tourism market.

"I can say

with confidence that in five years, you will see a new Cambodia in terms of

tourism development," says Minister Sereyvuth, referring to the projected

creation of hundreds of thousands of jobs, millions of tourists arrivals and

billions of dollars in new revenues. "I say this: tourism is the answer to the

future of this country."

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