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Scaling the eco-tourism ladder in Ratanakkiri

Scaling the eco-tourism ladder in Ratanakkiri


Four days into a recent trek in Cambodia's north-east province of Ratanakkiri, two

tourists arrived at a village untouched by Western influence. The women there were

topless and chugged on wood pipes, the houses were made of bamboo, and the children

ran warily from the tall, white barangs.

It was undoubtedly unusual and impressive. It was also frustrating, the tourists

said, as their guide couldn't tell them how to give money to the community. They

had no way of finding out about the people or of knowing whether their presence was

an intrusion. They came, they looked, and they left.

Forty kilometers away Cherq, a young English-speaking guide from the minority Tampoeun

tribe, takes another two tourists around Yeak Loam lake, near the provincial capital

of Ban Lung. At a cultural center set up by the community, Cherq plays an assortment

of traditional instruments and talks about his culture.

The next stop is a community farm where the tourists talk to a Tampoeun family about

agricultural traditions before going to the village. At the end of the day the guide

is paid and a slice of the money is given to the community.

In both cases there is an aspect of the human zoo, where relatively well-off tourists

ooh and aah over the indigenous cultures. Where the difference exists is that in

the second, the community itself manages the venture, makes the rules and receives

a slice of the earnings.

The result is that the residents of Yeak Loam commune will benefit more from a well-managed

scheme than those in the first village. The community has a 25 year management lease

over the protected Yeak Loam Lake.

Graeme Brown, an Australian volunteer working on rural development projects in Ratanakkiri,

is trying to help the commune manage the dangers and take advantage of the opportunities

tourism brings.

"There is going to be a commodification of the culture," he says, "but

it has to be managed, and it has to be managed by those communities, not by outsiders

who aren't interested in the culture ahead of their interest in money."

Some tour groups operating out of Phnom Penh, says Brown, run their tours in such

a way that the local people simply don't benefit.

"Then there are tourists who are basically unaware of their impact," he

says. "They come here and want to see the culture and the environment but they

are unaware that when they do so, they pour most of the money into people who are

not serving those interests."

Brown says that, in the main, indigenous people do not reap the benefits of tourism,

yet the income could be a lifeline as they continue to lose their farming land.

"You can look at tourism as serving tourists or you can look at tourism as serving

the community," he says. "The latter is what we would like to see here."

The governor of Ratanakkiri, Kham Khoeun, says the influence of international and

local tourists is good for his province as it is pushing development efforts.

"But we also have to strengthen the culture and the environment to withstand

the impacts of tourism," he says.

Yeak Loam's commune chief, Bai Keng, says people in the commune generally like the

scheme, although he is aware that tourism is "sometimes a problem". They

have used the money to buy salt, sugar and ink for the community and to build a meeting

house in one of the commune's five villages. He sees further value in his people

teaching Tampoeun culture to foreigners.

Speaking English is the "ticket" to making money out of tourism, Brown

says. The DRIVE project (Developing Remote Indigenous Village Education), which is

financed by the Australian Embassy, helps indigenous people to learn English. That

gives them access to tourism and the opportunity to tell people about their culture.

One problem is that money is a relatively new concept for the indigenous people,

who traditionally use barter. Brown warns that if it comes in "inappropriately"

it could destroy the culture.

"Tourism has got the potential of pouring money into [the pockets of] a small

number of people," he says. "That disrupts communities and destroys solidarity."

He says that if money is distributed in traditional ways there is a chance it will

be spread out.

"The trick is to do that in a way that allows many to have money," he says.

Brown is concerned that a sudden influx of tourists and cash could arrive before

the necessary structures are in place.

"The problem is that the national level wants money quickly and people here

want money quickly. But you've got to build structures to manage money and that takes


"I honestly don't think people know what is coming with tourism," he continues.

"It's not something people have experienced before. I can read articles and

watch videos about what [tourism's] impacts have been, but people here don't have

access to that information. But they also haven't had access to the information to

show how you can manage it - how you can turn it into opportunities."

Neourk, a young DRIVE student, says he regrets that he has not learned to play traditional

instruments. He worries that his people no longer have time for their own culture.

"Bringing tourists here makes us learn about our culture again," he says.

Brown says that is a potentially valuable benefit of tourism.

"There are lots of messages telling people that the old ways are dead, but this

changes that way of thinking. Their culture could be their future."

As the small cogs of provincial development turn in Ratanakkiri, bigger ones are

cranking up at the national level. The draft Master Plan for Tourism Development

in Ratanakkiri and Mondolkiri, prepared by a Thai research body, states: "Eco-tourism

will put Ratanakkiri and Mondolkiri on the world eco-tourism map. At the same time

it could earn foreign exchange for Cambodia."

The report identifies a "first phase" for 2001-2005 which will focus on

the "eastern highlands' natural beauty and culture," and includes the participation

of local people.

As infrastructure is built and tourist numbers climb, it discusses the "future

development" of hotels, souvenir shops, sporting equipment supplies and car


The master plan envisions Ratanakkiri as a link on the "tourism triangle"

between Thailand, Laos and Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. It identifies the provincial

capital Ban Lung as a future "major tourism center city".

By 2006 it projects more than 16,000 people will visit Ratanakkiri each year,

and suggests that number could climb as high as 43,000 by 2011.

Under-secretary of state at the Ministry of Tourism, Sisowath Chivannariddh, says

the ministry is well aware of the need for sensitivity in developing eco-tourism

in Ratanakkiri.

"If you do it in the wrong way it can destroy the very fabric you are trying

to preserve," says Chivannariddh. "We have to be very careful in developing

[the area] because it is very fragile."

The national eco-tourism plan for Ratanakkiri is reliant on private investment, but

he says it is unclear how the investment will be managed in order to preserve the

province's resources. He says laws and regulations will eventually be drawn up when

the infrastructure has been developed.

Concerns that eco-tourism is a meaningless phrase are given some weight by the draft

report. In Bar Keo, a village 15 kilometers from Ban Lung, eco-tourism could focus

on participatory gem harvesting, the report states. Rather than taking nothing but

photos and leaving nothing but footprints, tourists might be given the opportunity

to take a fist-full of gems and leave a large hole in the ground.

In a recent report, Anita Pleumarom from Thailand's Tourism Investigation and Monitoring

Team (TIMT) warns of an "eco-facade".

"Many of the claims concerning the benefits of eco-tourism have been exaggerated,

or owe more to labeling and marketing, as such plans are often planned and carried

out without local consent and support, and indeed threaten rather than benefit local

people's cultures, their subsistence economies and life-sustaining natural resource


In Thailand, she writes, "eco-facades" have already made their mark, "provoking

protests from indigenous Karen people who say their traditional livelihoods, culture

and environment [are] threatened."

Cambodia's Minister of Tourism, Veng Seryvuth, is aware of the problems caused in

other countries by eco-tourism schemes and has every intention of avoiding them.

"Because of the war we have started tourism later than other countries. We must

use this to our advantage by avoiding their mistakes," he says. "If you

destroy the environment everyone will lose out."

What the critics say

The UN has christened 2002 the International Year of Eco-Tourism (YET). Countries

throughout the world are touting their unspoiled cultures and pristine environments

as an oasis for travelers on the lookout for something new.

Get away from the rat race; see a real-life ethnic minority in a real-life indigenous

village; walk on earth unsullied by concrete; and reach deep into your pocket for

this once in a lifetime experience. Critics of YET suggest visitors take a photo,

because today's virginal destination could be tomorrow's tourist hotbed.

In a letter to UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, members of the Third World Network,

a group of individuals and NGOs concerned with development issues, called for the

year to be renamed the International Year of Reviewing Eco-tourism.

They say that overuse of the term has rendered it hollow and often a justification

for development. That brings with it a threat to environments, economies and indigenous

populations all over the globe, particularly in developing nations.

A conference on eco-tourism in the Thai city of Chiang Mai in late February will

discuss the good and the bad points of eco-tourism ventures. The conference, which

is motivated by the YET and organized by local groups working with indigenous peoples,

is part of a worldwide network of meetings aimed at finding a new definition for

the term "eco-tourism".

In reality the term "eco-tourism" can mean many things, from the "eco"

activities of clambering up mountain peaks, to climbing the wooden stairs of minority

tribespeople's houses in Ratanakkiri to peer inside.

Then there is the problem of rationalizing the concept of "eco" and the

methods required to have an eco-holiday. Graeme Brown in Ratanakkiri says eco-tourism

is a "complete and utter contradiction in terms - you can't get in an airplane

and drive around in a car for your own pleasure and call it supporting the environment.

But given that it is happening, there are better ways of doing it."


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