German organisation GTZ hopes creative partnerships will benefit locals and tourists
Photo by: CHRISTOPHER SHAY
Prasat Chhrey, a 7th-century temple in Sambor Prei Kuk. A new private-sector-sponsored tourism project aims to bring tourists into communities across this little-explored part of Cambodia.
WE made our way through Sambor Prei Kuk in Kampong Thom on bicycles rented from local schoolchildren and wearing kramas we had watched being made in a neighbouring village, while our guide explained the history of the site. Later, we ate lunch prepared by residents and took an oxcart to a craft store selling handwoven baskets.
Residents of Sambor Prei Kuk are newcomers to the tourism industry, but with the help of the German Development Organisation (GTZ), they have become quick learners. The organisation has spent the last three years training community members in handicraft production, English-language skills, bookkeeping, marketing and business management.
Today, Sambor Prei Kuk - a village conveniently located halfway between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap along Route 6 - is poised to become one of Cambodia's newest tourism hot spots, and one that will directly benefit the local community.
Sambor Prei Kuk is located on top of the ancient city of Isanapura, the 7th-century capital of Chenla. Despite years of looting and the ravages of war, important archaeological sites still dot the area.
In the early 600s, Chenla conquered large parts of what is now Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos, making it the dominant force in the region and an important predecessor to the Khmer Empire.
GTZ chose Sambor Prei Kuk to develop community-based services because of its historical resources and location, said Ngin Hong, a local economic development coordinator at GTZ.
The region's history makes it an ideal stop for tourists to learn about the pre-Angkorian era before heading north to Angkor Wat.
"It doesn't just have gorgeous-looking temples in a beautiful forested setting, but it also has carvings galore, is steeped in history and sets the scene for clients on their way to visit Angkor," said Andy Brouwer, product manager at Hanuman Tourism.
GTZ will spend the next two years trying to forge ties between Sambor Prei Kuk and the private sector. It brought in Exotissimo Travel, a tour operator, early on to develop a viable tour product and to make connections with other private-sector partners.
Such partnerships are vital because GTZ will pull out in 2010, after which the community will need to run the industry by itself.
Community-based tourism projects have failed in the past when they lacked monitoring, maintenance and local understanding of market demand, said Daniel de Gruiter, a consultant from Exotissmo.
But de Gruiter is optimistic about Sambor Prei Kuk's future because of early private-sector involvement.
"[GTZ] started to collect data and feedback from the private sector in the early stages, which helps them to develop in the right direction," de Gruiter said.
Many tour operators in Cambodia have started pushing clients towards community-based activities as the quality and quantity of options improve.
"If [tourists] feel they are giving something back direct to the local community, they find that appealing," Brouwer said.
Residents of Sambor Prei Kuk have already begun to reap the financial benefits of their new training. Sin Pich, a local coordinator of tourism services, said, "The community here is poor. Now, we can market goods and help people find jobs. People can make handicrafts and sell them to support their families."
Residents can also learn more about their culture and pass down that knowledge to future generations, Sin Pich said.
Our local guide, Noun Vothear, said his job brings a great sense of satisfaction. "I want more and more tourists here because I enjoy telling people about Sambor Prei Kuk," he said.
Despite early signs of success, two obstacles remain: poor transportation infrastructure and the need for understanding between tourists and community members.
The area's muddy, uneven roads can be major deterrents for many travellers.
"The government has many plans if the infrastructure gets better, but the first measure the government wants to do is improve the roads," said Bin Kimleath, deputy director of the Tourism Department in Kampong Thom province.
A potential new partnership holds out some hope for the future. Provincial officials in Kampong Thom are in discussion with the World Bank and the Chinese government to help fund road infrastructure that would better connect tourist sites, Ngin Hong said.
Mutual understanding between tourists and community members can also pose problems to the area's fledgling industry. Local villagers need to know what appeals to Western tourists, while visitors must respect their local hosts.
Brouwer said communication difficulties are "understandable in many respects, as the providers of the community services are coming from the other end of the spectrum from the high-end clients".
On the other side, tourism operators need to educate their clients. Tour companies cannot handpick which tourists go to community-based sites like Sambor Prei Kuk, but they can make sure they know some basic rules.
"We should provide them with guidelines of what we see as responsible tourism and encourage them to act responsibly. We can't make them, but we can encourage and inform," Brouwer said.
Partners in community revitalisation
As product manager for Hanuman Tourism, Andy Brouwer sees collaboration between the private sector and local communities as a key component towards building a sustainable and mutually beneficial tourism industry that serves the needs of local hosts and travellers alike. Community-based tourism services are poised to become a major component of the industry’s future growth. “We as private-sector companies should encourage our clients to use these services where possible, as that will have a positive effect on the local communities.... However, we have a duty to make sure these services are of a good enough quality,” Brouwer said. Apart from generating additional revenue, such programs can reinforce community traditions. Sin Pich, a tourism operator in Kampong Cham, says traditional handicraft skills are being revived. “Once they have the knowledge, they can continue it and pass it down to posterity. The tourists show them that [traditional] knowledge is important,” Sin Pich said.
Left to right: A woman in Atsu village weaves traditional Cambodian scarves; Andy Brouwer shows children outside of Wat Cheay Sampeay his photographs; artisans at Samnak village hand-carve statues. CHRISTOPHER SHAY