ASEAN leaders are collectively advocating ecotourism as a crucial element in the industry to entice both domestic and international travellers, as the sector steadily recovers from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The campaign aims to offer visitors novel recreational experiences, immersing them in nature and community-based travel.

Cambodia is successfully advancing in the promotion of ecotourism as well, aligning with regional efforts to revitalise and enrich tourism experiences.

New ASEAN boost on ecotourism

Approximately 93.7 million international tourists visited ASEAN member countries in 2023, marking a growth rate of 153%, as highlighted at the 27th Meeting of ASEAN Tourism Ministers (M-ATM), held in the Lao capital Vientiane from January 23-27.

The ministers approved the draft ASEAN Ecotourism Standard – set to be adopted at the upcoming 44th ASEAN Summit in Vientiane – and endorsed the Action Roadmap for Sustainable Tourism Development in ASEAN.

Former Minister of Tourism Thong Khon stated at an event in November that the Covid-19 crisis had almost entirely altered the structure of tourism in the region and globally. 

He asserted that the government is “determined and ready, with strong hope” to sustain the sector amidst any challenges.

Khon highlighted that Cambodia is internationally recognised for its contributions to eco- and community-based tourism, particularly within the ASEAN framework. 

He attributed this to the government’s Public-Private-People Partnership (4P) development model, which, he noted, focuses on empowering local communities, maximising grassroots benefits and reducing poverty.

“Cambodia is rich in natural and ecotourism potential across the country, from the coast, collectively a member of the Most Beautiful Bays in the World Club, to the Cardamom

Mountains – including the Areng Valley – and Tonle Sap Lake as well as the northeastern region with its rare dolphins,” he said.

Joint efforts of public-private sector

Sar Sarin, vice-president of the Cambodia Association of Travel Agents (CATA), said that in the post-pandemic context, ecotourism is emerging as a new attraction for travellers who are keen to explore new places and connect with nature. 

He noted that both the government and private sector have been promoting ecotourism in recent years, as many travellers prefer nature-based experiences.

“It is an opportunity for us to collaborate with ASEAN on the Ecotourism Standard as it can ensure comfort, safety and cleanliness for tourists. Once all ASEAN members adopt the Ecotourism Standard, we will all benefit from a common framework in promoting ecotourism and offering new experiences to tourists,” he said.

Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Dith Tina, speaking at a forum in November, highlighted the important role of the agricultural sector in driving tourism development, including the eco- and community-based segments, through food supply and environmental conservation, among other means.

He emphasised the interdependence between growth in the agriculture sector, tourism development and success in protecting the environment and natural resources.

Tina noted that community farmers and producers need a market for their products to ensure a sufficient income. At the same time, he said, domestic and international tourists seek attractive destinations and require sustenance.

“The [ministry] will continue to enhance its capacity to support and encourage communities nationwide to engage more actively in agro-tourism and ecotourism development activities. This includes offering attractive destinations for tourists, producing food, providing services to travellers as a source of income for households and local people, and acting as a robust shield to protect the environment and natural resources,” he said.

Ecotourism new source of public funds

According to the World Bank’s report on “Enabling Ecotourism Development in Cambodia”, published in 2020, there is a noticeable trend of increasing visitors to eco-sites in Cambodia and indicates that the sector has significant potential for further development. 

The bank highlighted that the number of tourists visiting coastal areas and ecotourism sites had doubled between 2014 and 2019, accounting for 16% of all visits in 2019, just before the pandemic.

The bank noted that iconic landscapes, such as the Cardamom Mountains, possess the natural qualities necessary for developing new and exciting multi-day itineraries.

It highlighted that these can cater to the demands of key tourism markets, including closed canopy forests for hiking, offering adventure tourism opportunities particularly appealing to younger travellers, both domestically and internationally. 

The report noted that the region’s rich biodiversity, including birds, insects and small mammals, is an attraction for birdwatchers and wildlife enthusiasts, and the remoteness of some of Cambodia’s picturesque forested landscapes is “exactly what high-end, wealthier tourists from North America, Europe, ASEAN countries and China seek”.

“Cambodia’s spectacular and pristine natural assets are exactly what ecotourists look for, and the opportunities for supporting the expansion of the industry are great. There are already examples of successful mid- to high-end ecotourism operations in Cambodia, which suggest that [these] products have great potential,” the bank stated.

It also noted that tourism contributed directly and indirectly to about 1.3 million jobs in 2018, with annual income from community-based ecotourism reaching as high as $300,000 for some rural communities. 

“Agricultural produce, food and transport services are among the supply chains linked to tourism and ecotourism that can provide employment opportunities for more rural individuals,” it emphasised.

The report added that healthy plants and wildlife, along with beautiful landscapes and nature in protected areas, are assets that create high value for ecotourism, helping generate about $600 billion in annual revenue in the areas globally.

Ecotourism increases, mobile app launched

The impact of Covid-19 on Cambodia’s tourism sector underscores the need for diversifying the country’s tourism offerings.

In a high-impact scenario, the World Bank said Cambodia could see an 80 per cent decrease in tourist arrivals which “would result in lost … revenues of about $2.8 billion, affecting approximately one million jobs”.

According to the Ministry of Environment, there are currently 22 ecotourism communities under its jurisdiction. These cover an area of 35,003ha across 12 protected areas in eight provinces, including Ratanakkiri, Kampong Speu, Koh Kong, Pursat, Preah Vihear, Kampong Thom, Kampot and Kampong Chhnang.

In addition to these sites, numerous new eco-resorts are attracting tourists as well, including the Roleak Kang Choeung Ecotourism Community in Kampong Speu province’s Oral district, home to Phnom Khnong Phsar; the Phat Sanday floating community in Kampong Thom province; the Teuk Chob Khnar Po Ecotourism Community in Siem Reap province; and the Boeung Sneh area in Prey Veng province.

The ministry emphasised that the number of tourists visiting sites in conservation and protected areas increased in 2023 compared to 2018-2019.

Ministry data shows that in 2018, $16.16 million was earned from 343,852 tourists, and last year, revenue of $18.90 million was generated from 402,293 visitors.

On August 16, the environment ministry launched a mobile app to share maps and information about the Kingdom’s ecotourism destinations with travellers.

The bilingual Khmer and English app is called Doe Leng Sruk Yoeng on the Apple’s App Store and Doelengsrukyoeng in Khmer script on Google’s Play Store.