Community-based ecotourism has become a popular tool for promoting inclusive growth and creating new sources of income for villagers that can also help to protect natural assets such as forests and biodiversity, writes Chea Vannak.
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Ecotourism in Cambodia involving communities, with areas of outstanding natural beauty and special interest such as forests, waterfalls, rivers and wildlife as popular travel destinations, has grown rapidly over the past decade.
It is a form of ecotourism that does not damage social, environmental and cultural systems of the community.
Chambok commune, located in Phnom Sruoch district, Kampong Speu province is the poster child of community-based ecotourism in the country with its homestay for tourists who want to visit the spectacular, more than 40-metre high, waterfall located in an old-growth forest and visit bat caves in the area.
This commune is adjacent to Kirirom National Park, one of the popular national parks in Cambodia, and comprises Krang Chek, Beng, Thmei and Chambok villages.
Farmer Hout Khem, in Beng village, is one of those villagers who have opened up their homes to tourists.
As she served morning tea to her overnight guests, she told Khmer Times that it was her daily ritual if her family was putting up tourists.
“I normally have foreign tourists stay in my place at least four times a month,” said Ms Khem, who also works as a local tour guide. Each tourist normally pays $4 a night to lodge in Ms Khem’s village home, with extra charges if they want home-cooked meals.
The Chambok community-based ecotourism (CBET) project was established in 2003 with the initiative and support from the European Union-supported Mlup Baitong.
A management committee consisting of elected residents was nominated in order to operate the Chambok CBET project. Its objectives are to protect forests and natural resources, to provide an alternative income to poverty-stricken and forest product-dependent communities, and to educate the residents and visitors about environmental conservation.
“The homestay service provides additional income to villagers,” said Om Sophana, Mlup Baitong’s executive director.
“It helps them supplement their main income from agriculture. They also have stopped cutting down trees in the forest and hunting wildlife for trade and have come together to protect the environment,” he added.
“From loggers to protectors of an old growth forest is the best way to describe these villagers.”
Mr Sophana said around 500 households are members of Chambok’s CBET project and besides the homestays they could earn money from entrance fees to the community forest, vehicle-parking fees, selling souvenirs and nursery plants and services provided to tourists such as ox-cart driving, bicycle rental and tourist gazebos catering.
“Chambok’s model shows that the villagers’ perceived improvement of their livelihoods were likely to influence support of the CBET project, which primarily depends on conserving the forest,” he added.
Touch Morn, leader of the Chambok CBET project, said foreign tourists from some 50 countries have visited the commune.
“Most of the tourists spend about $25 a night, which includes food, lodging and sightseeing,” said Mr Morn.
Mr Morn said the Chambok CBET project also strives to promote friendly relations between tourists and the host villagers.
“Foreign tourists are very interested about learning how villagers live and we provide every opportunity for that in the homestays,” he said. “A few of them even want to experience farming in the village and take the time to stay with us for weeks at a time.”
Mr Morn said the Chambok CBET also catered to local tourists – mostly students and office workers from private companies.
“They often come in groups and are very interested to have discussions with us. We also allow them to camp in the community,” he said.
Eco-tourism and nature tourism are important revenue earners for Kampong Speu province, said Sao Saran, director of the provincial tourism department.
“Community-based ecotourism projects have the potential to support local household incomes directly and indirectly through the creation of more local opportunities and jobs,” said Mr Saran.
Mr Saran pointed out that Chambok CBET needed support from the Ministry of Tourism to improve its tourism infrastructure, like road access, power supply and sanitation.
“In addition, setting up a local network to provide vocational skills training related to running an ecotourism enterprise in Cambodia would provide more employment and income opportunities,” he added.
The Chambok CBET project, in cooperation Mlup Baitong, had been selected as a finalist for the National Geographic World Legacy Awards 2017 in the category “Engaging Communities”.
Although it did not win in the category, when the results were announced in March, Chambok community leader Mr Morn said the international publicity was more than enough to attract an increasing number of tourists.