CYCLING along the narrow bike paths of Koh Trong, an island just off the coast of Kratie city in Cambodia, visitors are often overwhelmed by the serenity of the small town nestled among towering trees and resting cows.
The quiet – away from the honks of cars, the loud touting of vendors, and the stench of smog – is almost deafening.
Almost all the homes are built on stilts, with aluminium or zinc roofs and a large compound for chickens, dogs and cats to stroll in and out as they please. Some homes have small vegetable farms while others have cows tied loosely on a piece of rope.
A select few display “Homestay” signs.
Such is the indicator ecotourism or community-based tourism has made its way to Cambodia and into the humble, rural homes of unsuspecting Cambodians.
Another sign is the frequent holler of “Hello!” from passing villagers, most of whom don’t speak much English beyond that. Just enough to welcome guests, delighted observers notice quickly.
Ecotourism is more than just a travel trend – it can be defined as sustainable travel that seeks to minimize tourists’ ecological impacts by maximizing on aspects of travel already in existence.
Instead of building an imposing chain hotel, for instance, ecotourism looks to homestay programs that encourage travelers to live with local families. In other words, responsible travel.
And yes, it is, as a matter of fact, also trendy. Millennials, a generation which has already surpassed its predecessors in the US, armed with a disposal income, are looking to environmentally friendly forms of travel.
According to online tour booking site TrekkSoft’s 2016 Trends Report, responsible tourism is now one of the top seven factors travelers take into consideration when making decisions.
In fact, the United Nations general assembly in December 2015 even declared 2017 as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development.
So it comes as no surprise Cambodia, a country constantly looking for ways to boost its tourism numbers, would so quickly adopt ecotourism. And rightly so too, given the marine-rich Mekong River cutting through its equally flora- and fauna-rich forest plains.
According to a December report in The Diplomat, there are 66 community-based tourism and community-based ecotourism spots throughout the kingdom. Visitors get the chance to visit floating villages, live with villagers in their homes or even spot rare freshwater Irrawaddy dolphins.
Community tourism, in actuality, is far more fulfilling than a trip to a fully equipped resort with meals prepared by culinary school-trained chefs.
For instance, a tour of Kratie City, a town five hours northeast of capital city Phnom Penh, will see travelers explore diverse sites from a pagoda built into a mountain side to eating raw palm sugar straight out of the wok in a villager’s backyard.
No tour bus will show you how some Cambodians celebrate Khmer New Year, arguably the biggest holiday in the country, by visiting Krampi resort – a shoddily built floating bamboo structure complete with rentable hammocks and entire restaurants – nor will you get the chance to taste freshly made rice wine (and feel the subsequent buzz) from the comforts of air-conditioned buses.
And the locals, too, seem to enjoy the quizzical expression of tourists, mesmerized by the sights and sounds of rural ingenuity (think homemade noodle press machines). Many say they enjoy sharing their culture with tourists willing to ditch flag-toting guides for a more grounded and holistic approach.
“It was really hard work. Now, besides being a farmer, I can also bring tourists to visit the beautiful temple, showing them around my childhood playground and share the history of the king with them,” 32-year-old Kit Sokuon, one of the 11 local tour guides at the Banteay Chhmar Community-Based Tourism project, told The Diplomat. “It’s a good job for me.”
The report quotes Cambodia’s Tourism Ministry as stating 4.7 million tourists visited the kingdom in 2015, of which up to 20 percent were here looking for ecotourism opportunities, the National Tourism Alliance said.
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The growth has been so encouraging that in September, the government announced it was drafting a law on sustainable tourism initiatives in a bid to keep the industry going.
Local daily the Phnom Penh Post reported the Tourism Ministry was collaborating with France’s University of Toulouse to create the legislation after it discovered 20 percent of its five million tourist arrivals were keen on responsible travel.
“Ecotourism is a new tool to attract foreign tourists and it is a trend that should be focused on to develop our tourism industry,” Tourism Minister Thong Khon was quoted as saying.
“Ecotourism can benefit local people directly and play an efficient role in reducing poverty.”
However, rapid development often is a double-edged sword and could, in turn, harm the customs and traditions of those at the epicenter of the ecotourism trend, according to Global Heritage Fund-CBT general manager Tath Sophal.
“We hope we can have a maximum of only 5,000 visitors every year. If the number of visitors grows over this number, there are many things we can’t control,” Sophal told The Diplomat.