Eco-Tourists Flock to Cambodia’s Far Northeastern Corner

(This is the third in a series of three stories on tourist attractions in rural Cam­bodia.)

banlung – More and more these days, automobiles are driving down Ratanakkiri province’s narrow dirt roads and pulling into minority hill tribe villages. Out of the cars come camera-toting foreign tourists with their Khmer-speaking guides, eager to catch a live glimpse of an indigenous culture—and perhaps bring back a souvenir.

In 1998, just 805 foreign tour­ists came to Ratanakkiri, said Uy Koeun, vice-director of the provincial department of tourism. During this year’s dry season—the peak period for tourism—600 to 700 foreigners are expected to come each month to explore the province’s waterfalls, volcanoes and lakes, as well as its cultural attractions.

“It has increased a lot,” said Mrs Kim, who prefers to go by her first name only and has been running tours and operating two guest houses in Banlung for seven years. “Most are backpackers, but we are also getting some package tourists.”

That more tourists are venturing to Cambodia’s far northeastern corner pleases officials who are seeking to diversify the country’s tourist attractions. In the coming years, the government will concentrate on developing the mountainous northeast, along with Siem Reap, Phnom Penh and the seacoast area, said Min­istry of Tourism Secretary of State Thong Khan.

In poverty-plagued Ratanakkiri, the increased income is welcome, but the growing number of dollar-carrying tourists still worries some NGO officials here who work with the indigenous hill tribes that make up 75 percent of the province’s population.

They point to popular destinations Chiang Mai, Thailand, and northwest provinces of Vietnam, where foreign eco-tourists go to experience a mountain climate, but also pay to see “colorful” hill tribes wearing traditional clothing in native villages. Many of these people have simply been dressed up and trotted out for show, said Jan Noorlander, a Voluntary Services Overseas official here.

“Tourism represents a boon for some people. But as international experience shows, it often does not provide much benefit for those who have no access to the tourism sector. This has been especially so with indigenous and other marginalized people,” Noorlander said.

Many tourists think nothing of climbing into a villager’s stilted home and walking through rooms, snapping photos, he said. Others wander through a village, buying artifacts or taking car­vings from sacred burial sites.

“These are remote areas and money does talk there. If people flash a few dollars, then, of course, people are going to say yes,” said Nick Ray, author of Lonely Planet Cambodia.

One challenge to developing tourism in Ratanakkiri is making sure the new cash infusion reaches many of the province’s poor, Ray said.

“There has to be a small amount of trickle down,” he said. “Tourism [in Ratanakkiri] has to be carefully managed; otherwise these people could really be exploited.”

But with few schools and an indigenous population with limited knowledge of Khmer or English, that could be difficult. Noorlander and fellow VSO official Graeme Brown have been training ethnic Tampuans to work as guides at Yeak Loam volcanic lake, the scenic area near Banlung where then-Prince Nor­odom Sihanouk kept a holiday villa in the 1960s.

The project has taught English to local villagers, giving them an outlet to make a living. In recent years, their communal farm lands have gradually shrunk as Ban­lung has expanded.

But in developing Ratanakkiri’s tourism potential, Thong Khan said the government is thinking only of infrastructure. More hotels, better roads and restaurants, an adequate power and water supply and an improved airport that could bring in international flights are the first priority, he said. A government delegation will travel to Banlung in February to assess the current airport’s capability.

“The infrastructure comes first. The airport must come first,” Thong Khan said.

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