Siem Reap – Angkor’s hub – draws more than 2 million tourists annually, but the province remains one of the poorest in Cambodia.
Many of those visitors take note of the poverty. Staying an extra few days and visiting areas outside of town offers a way to help without causing more harm than good – the tourism industry does, after all, provide jobs and income.
Forty minutes from town, the Banteay Srei temple draws travellers that are generally less likely to treat temples as tourist tick-boxes: about 2,000 per day, says Saloth Eng, a technical adviser for the Regional Economic Development Program III (RED III).
The project, supported by the German aid agency GIZ, is seeking to transform the sleepy district into Siem Reap province’s second tourist destination – and to keep visitors there longer than the usual two or three hours.
“The market is already there, with the temples,” says Eng.
The program’s organisers put the decision to encourage development in the hands of local authorities. It took more than a year to engage local stakeholders and tour operators, says Wolfram Jaekel, the program manager. But once they came onboard, the organisers were able to register a community-based organisation under the arm of the district governor.
While the temple will still remain the gem, the development program has focused its efforts on promoting cultural and wildlife experiences like the Cambodian Landmine Museum, the Banteay Srei Butterfly Centre, the Angkor Centre for the Conservation of Biodiversity (ACCB) and organic produce farms. The community has also set up a network of homestays – starting at $5 per person per night – that let tourists stay with local families in traditional wooden homes.
If that’s a bit bare basics, there are also converted boutique villas for those who don’t want to leave luxury too far behind. As the community has tested their ideas on visitors, they’ve seen swift change in the number of people interested in longer stays.
Before the network was finalised, “I was getting calls from people to help them arrange homestay accommodation,” says Eng. “When the website and the Facebook page went live, this really increased [the number of] enquiries.”
They have also noticed an increase in the number of domestic tourists, he says: Cambodians seeking a weekend getaway from town.
While it remains to be seen whether Banteay Srei will draw long-term crowds, the future looks promising. But for now, the development project certainly offers a retreat for all from touristy Siem Reap – as well as a way to support the local community.
Banteay Srei visitor maps are now available at local businesses around town; for more information, check out visitbanteaysrei.org.