Tourism Time Bomb Ticks Down in Northwest

BANLUNG, Ratanakkiri province – A new airport and a paved road promise to bring sweeping change to the remote provincial capital of Banlung in five years time, making the once isolated city a waystop for international travelers and regional commerce.

A good thing for this impoverished corner of Cambodia, may­be, but the change is coming so quickly local residents say there’s little time to properly manage the crush.

“It’s like someone has their finger on the plug of a dam and they’re about to let it out,” said Graeme Brown, a volunteer on an AusAID project training local tourist guides in Banlung.

The wave will come in two parts. First, a paved road built in two to three years from the Vietnamese border to Phnom Penh will greatly shorten the arduous day-and-a-half road trip that travelers face today. Second, an Asia Development Bank project will see Banlung’s dirt landing strip converted into a $6 million international airport.

The combined projects, many locals say, will rewrite the economy and pace of Ratanakkiri, a relatively untread province that saw just 2,000 tourists in 2001, but one year later had 9,000 visitors, according to Brown’s estimates.

The numbers may not seem high when compared to the throngs that descend on Angkor Wat, but Ratanakkiri has just 120,000 residents scattered among 240 villages and one city.

Banlung itself has few attractions for a tourist other than Yok Lom, a freshwater lake that makes for a bracing swim. It’s in the outlaying areas beyond the city that tourists will find Virachey National Park, the nation’s largest, and dozens of hilltribe villages and highland farms.

The changes ahead may only worsen the lives of local residents, said Brown.

“Unless you’ve got the systems in place, you end up with the communities bearing the costs and businesses bearing the benefits,” he said.

Brown said successful projects in Nepal, Tanzania, Belize and nearby Asean countries spread tourism profits not just among tour operators, but among local residents.

His project has trained five ethnic Tumpuon hilltribe residents from a commune east of the city to work as tourist guides. They will soon be joined by ten more trainees, Brown said.

“I explain to the tourists about my culture, and care about the forests and farms and explain about the Yok Lom story,” said Sovann Hien, 21, a guide for the last two years.

The story of the lake, he went on to explain, is that a giant, or “Yok,” picked a boulder out of the ground. Rainwater then filled the round depression left behind.

That’s a quaint story for a region that has long been a pariah among Southeast Asian travelers.

“People used to say you go to Rattanakiri to die,” joked Caroline McCausland, a longtime Banlung resident. The region has some of the highest malaria rates in the country and, as if that wasn’t enough to deter visitors, travel between Banglung and Phnom Penh used to require a dangerous passage through territory held by Khmer Rouge guerrillas.

Those dark times are fading as adventurous tourists sandal their way into town, McCausland said.

“Now people say, ‘Go to Rattan­akiri and see Yok Lom,’” she said.

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