A boat operator waits to take tourists back to the mainland after an island trek in Ream National Park. Cambodia’s tourism market is latching onto the idea of eco-tourism to cater to a growing market of environmentally conscious travelers, leading to calls for the Kingdom to standardize ecotourism practices.
Puttering away from Bamboo Island, the boatload of visitors returning to the mainland from their small slice of paradise take a last glance at the stretch of secluded beach where bungalows nestle beneath the palms.
As the tourists look back, the boat driver tosses a plastic garbage bag filled with the day’s rubbish over the side.
A lack of awareness about trash disposal, as well as illegal logging, mining, rampant development of the jungle and migration of the rural poor, are all issues hampering the development of ecotourism in a country where environmental issues take a back stage to the problems of poor families making a living.
Marcus Sandford, an ecotourism adviser who has been working on Cambodia projects since 2004, said a lack of definition continues to plague the industry as tour groups are "hitching onto the eco bandwagon.”
Although an increasing range of tour groups in Cambodia are marketing tours as "ecotourism,” experts say many of these activities are neither completely environmentally friendly, nor do they benefit the local community.
But Minister of Tourism Thong Khon is optimistic that the environment can be preserved and a successful industry created. After returning from a visit to Koh Kong he told the Post February 20 that ecotourism is a subject close to his heart because he grew up in the countryside.
He said an increase in ecotourism will encourage European visitors who currently account for about 10 percent of Cambodia’s tourism market. The main target areas for developing ecotourism are Koh Kong and Cambodia’s northeast, Khon says.
Tourism figures for 2006 showed a rise in foreign visitors to Koh Kong and Mondulkiri by 28 percent and 95 percent respectively over the previous year, but in Rattanakiri numbers dropped by 18 percent over the same period. The provincial figures for 2007 are not yet available.
Of the1,305 tourist sites listed by the Ministry of Tourism (MoT), about eight percent are natural areas.
But ecotourism goes beyond nature watching. The World Conservation Union defines ecotourism as, "Environmentally responsible travel to natural areas, in order to enjoy and appreciate nature (and accompanying cultural features, both past and present) that promote conservation, have a low visitor impact and provide for beneficially active socioeconomic involvement of local peoples.”
With 25 years of experience in the field, Sandford says Cambodia has enormous potential as an ecotourism destination, but because it is a new concept, the rural poor who stand to benefit from its development need to be educated in order to embrace it.
Donal Crinigan describes what happened when he leased Bamboo Island off the Sihanoukville coast two years ago. After removing 32 boatloads of garbage from the island, he began offering daily boat trips and overnight stays in cabins on the densely forested island.
But monitoring waste management was difficult. Tour guides and boat drivers continually dumped rubbish either on the island or into the sea on the return trip.
Crinigan asked his tourist clients to be alert for rubbish dumping and, as customer complaints increased, guides eventually agreed to carry the rubbish back to the mainland for recycling.
"Even the guides admit that recycling is better,” Crinigan says. "The area is cleaner and visitors are a lot happier.”
Convincing local guides is one step, but Touch Nimith, ecotourism officer for Conservation International, says the key is to create an industry that generates income for the local community.
This is where conflict arises between conservationists and officials in government, he says.
"If you look at tourism as just revenue for the government how can you teach people to protect their resources,” he says.
"When tourists are crossing into local villages it is crucial that some of the revenue goes back to them. But convincing government of benefit sharing is difficult.”
Nimith says planning and long-term communication among official departments involved is also needed.
He says small projects with no master plan can cause conflict within communities but even in large ecotourism zones such as the Cardamom Mountains the officials of the various departments in control of the borders, such as the Forestry Administration, Ministry of Tourism and Ministry of Environment, are not communicating.
Sandford says strong government control and national strategies are needed for Cambodia to realize its ecotourism potential.
The government has established laws against littering. A fine of 10,000 riel for a first offence and twice that for a second offense can be imposed.
But Chiek Ang, deputy director of the environment department for Phnom Penh Municipality, says the fines are rarely imposed because people don’t know about the issue.
Some awareness campaigns have been launched but these are dependant on budget, he says.
The Ministry of Tourism, with help from the Netherlands Development Organization (SNV), conducted surveys of tour providers and visitors, the current and potential ecotourism sites, and met with officials of government and the private sector to create a national level ecotourism policy and strategy.
The estimates are that market demand for ecotourism in Cambodia will increase from 6-20 percent per year. The destinations with the most potential are firstly the northeast, followed by the Tonle Sap and then the southwest.
The recommendations set out in the ecotourism strategy currently await government approval.
Meanwhile the battle between logging, mining, and development interests continues to threaten conservation and ecotourism development in many areas, including the Cardamoms and the northeast.
Nimith, of Conservation International, says the Cardamom trek is at risk of illegal logging and hunting. Population migration also infringes on nature as families clear plots for homes and small farms. In the northeast, agro-business and mining are the big threats.
"Promoting Cambodia as an ecotourism destination with no boundaries on development or logging cannot be sustainable,” says Nimith. "Without forests and wildlife how can you have ecotourism?”