Exploring Responsible Tourism in Cambodia
Tourism is the second largest industry in Cambodia after manufacturing. By 2020, an estimated twenty million Asian tourists will visit Angkor Wat, most of whom have paid no more than 800 US Dollars for a package trip including a visit to a crocodile farm and the Chinese restaurants that line touristy Pub Street. Avoiding this type of tourist is a crucial part in the way we, at cazenove+loyd, design our itineraries. We train our guides to be specialists in crowd avoidance, as much as history, photography or any other interest. As the numbers of tourists increase, so will our training and development. It is our mission to go against the tide.
On the other end of the tourist spectrum in Siem Reap, but no less striking, there are luxury hotels costing over $1,000 per night in the high season, helicopter rides to extraordinary hidden temples and Michelin-star worthy restaurants.
Cambodia’s crown jewel, Angkor does not disappoint. The several hundred temples dating from the 9th to 14th Centuries amaze all ages, demographics and nationalities. The twisted trees and vines that grow amongst them, famously introduced to much of the world by Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider, have a mystic appeal. Social media is awash with photos of the magnificence of Angkor at sunrise or a smiling Bayon face.
For anyone who has been lucky enough to spend time here, however, Angkor is just one part of Siem Reap. The region is made up of tens of thousands of Cambodians living in rural farmland and is far less developed than neighbouring tourist spots such as Hoi An in Vietnam and Chiang Mai in Thailand. Siem Reap’s landscape is dotted with paddy fields, grazing water buffalo and palm groves, offering the quintessential South East Asian scene.
While walking through one such rural village in June of last year with my fantastic guide, Bon, he told me that the families living along this quiet village stream, are currently under threat of being moved by the Government procuring land to build infrastructure for tourism. This is evidently the case all over the world, but I can’t help but find this deeply depressing in a country that has had such a bitterly troubled history in recent decades and yet, whose people are so genuinely kind and open.
One man who is addressing some of the issues is Christian De Boer, who has been working in tourism in Siem Reap for over 16 years. He started bringing awareness to responsible tourism while managing one of Siem Reap’s first boutique hotels, Shinta Mani Angkor and helped to establish their foundation, which donates 5% of its profits to supporting the communities where they operate, by increasing human capital and “providing them the tools to overcome the constraints of poverty”. It’s no surprise to me then when the Manager there tells me that Christian is a “local hero” to her and many in the Khmer community.
I had lunch with Christian at his latest hotel project, the boutique Jaya House River Park, which has garnered rave reviews since it opened in 2016, to discuss everything from our organic lunch menu to politics. At the time of our meeting, there are local elections going on. The Cambodian People's Party have been in power for decades and many young Cambodians naturally want a change, so the atmosphere around Siem Reap is distinctly spirited.
Christian feels that the biggest issue facing Cambodians today is climate change. He tells me about his “most important project to date”, Refill not Landfill. Cambodia was hit by extreme flooding in 2011, 2014 and again in early 2017, leaving much of the population displaced or homeless. Tons of plastic are left around Siem Reap in mountainous landfills or piling up beside roads choking the fields and waterways with waste, and a good chunk of that is because of tourism.
4.8 million visitors travelled to Cambodia in 2015, staying for an average of 6.8 days
Each consumed around 2 litres of water per day
This means 10 million half-litre bottles could have been used and thrown away in just one month
That’s 355,000 bottles per day…
Christian is trying to change attitudes and educate his staff about the impact of plastic and the toxic effects of burning it, which is still widely done in Cambodia and how best to recycle plastic at home. Of course there are no plastic bottles at Jaya House or Shinta Mani. Guests are given easy access to purified water tanks in both hotels and stainless steel bottles to use throughout their stay and out sightseeing. An investment undoubtedly, but a relatively simple step, and I am struck by how few hotels offer this in Siem Reap.
Christian showing me the bags guests can use in the rooms which are made of re-used plastics.
After meeting with Christian, I visited the Made in Cambodia Market, which he started right across the street from Shinta Mani Hotel as a community project. In the four years since it began, the Market has created hundreds of jobs and brings together the most exciting examples of artisan Khmer craftsmanship in Cambodia today.
I also spent time with the ABOUTAsia Schools Charity, whose mission is to help educate the less-privileged rural population sustainably by returning funds garnered from travel. As the owner of the organisation tells me, only 1% of the population has access to education and “tourism is the primary means of upward economic mobility in northwest Cambodia”. The charity seeks to educate English from a younger age, by funding government schools to teach English to children, including paying for teachers, training, and in-house supplies.
In addition, ABOUTAsia operate three Village Learning Centres, and I visited one just north of Siem Reap, which is one part library, one part classroom, and one part community centre. The overall goal of these centres is to stimulate learning outside of the classroom for underprivileged village children. This open space also gives the charity greater flexibility operating outside of the corrupt public school system.
In 2017 and 2018, cazenove+loyd will donate $60 per booking to ABOUTAsia Schools. Last year, some of our funds went directly to immediate infrastructure needs at two primary schools. Both have had issues from climate change and the severe flooding levels, and so the funds have gone directly to gravel and stone to raise the courtyard and entrances.
We are also partnering with Refill Not Landfill to provide our clients with stainless steel containers on arrival in Cambodia and we are working on rolling this out to all of our regions in Asia by 2019.
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