koh kong province – Kauk Pov’s tiny fiberglass boat hurtles unsteadily over the greasy gray waves between Koh Kong town and the island of the same name. Every swell sets the light craft bouncing, and the wake of a passing fishing boat threatens to spill the inhabitants into the warm surf.
With waterfalls, picturesque islands and mangrove coastline, Koh Kong town has been hailed as an ideal spot for eco-tourism, and public officials have claimed that the future growth of the town, and indeed the entire province, depends on the tourist industry.
But who will come, and why, remains unclear.
In January 2001, then Ministry of Agriculture fisheries specialist Touch Seang Tana said there were plans to promote eco-tourism around the area’s coral, evergreen forests, beaches and waterfalls.
But for the moment, the reality of eco-tourism in the area is only represented by Kauk Pov and his tiny boat.
Most days, Kauk Pov drives a motorbike taxi around town. His boat trips are booked by Otto Weyer, the German proprietor of a local guest house and restaurant.
“This is some of the most beautiful country in the world, and no one is coming to look at it,” Weyer said.
For about $40, Weyer will arrange a boat tour for visitors with a local guide, he said. Visitors must request the service, he added, since demand is not high enough to guarantee regular schedules.
For about $5, visitors can also rent a motorbike taxi and driver to carry them over the province’s ragged roads to see the nearby waterfalls at Tatai and Koh Por.
“I think that tourism does not shape up yet,” said Koh Kong Director of Agriculture and Fisheries Hout Thoung in an interview late last month. His department, he said, “got the idea to preserve the mangroves [and other environmental resources] through tourism, but now there is no tourists to access the area.”
Many local business owners say the area’s traditionally meager tourist trade has dropped off even further in the past years. Most tourists who do come are either on their way to Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville, or they’re interested in Koh Kong’s casino and shops near the Thai border, rather than in the town and the environment, business owners said.
Kauk Pov’s perilous little boat is certainly not the stuff of family entertainment. Two passengers can just squeeze onto the boat’s single seat, a bare plank which guarantees as back-breaking a ride as the dirt road that leads to Koh Kong from Phnom Penh.
First Deputy Governor Pich Han said there is a company in town with three larger tour boats, seating 20 to 60 people—but they also lack a regular schedule, running only when customers show.
Much of the development aid going into Koh Kong has focused on preserving the area’s natural riches, rather than encouraging tourists to see them. Eco-tourism, experts said, can be a delicate balance between profiting from natural resources and exploiting them.
But some were optimistic that Koh Kong could support a profitable tourist industry.
“The potential is there,” said David Mead, country director of Conservation International.
Conservation International has plans to send an assessment team to Koh Kong province to examine how tourism can be developed. There are many issues involved, he added, like having suitable health and safety precautions for western tourists.
“What needs to happen, quite simply, is there needs to be investment,” either supported by conservation groups or private developers, Mead concluded.
But assessments of how much investment is needed, and what exactly eco-tourism has to offer, can vary.
Amanda Bradley, an advisor for the NGO Mlup Baitong, which works on developing small community-based eco-tourism projects, said she knows eco-tourism can be profitable when undertaken in a village setting.
At the eco-tourism site where she works in Chambok commune in Kompong Speu, the recent Water Festival drew more than 600 tourists to see the 40 meter waterfall that is the centerpiece of the site. Visitors bought oxcart rides, guided tours of trails to the falls, and goods from local vendors, and raised several thousand dollars for village projects.
Even on a small scale, however, developing a single ecotourist attraction requires a facilitator, and investment in training and publicity, Bradley said.
Mlup Baitong’s budget for the entire project in Kompong Speu, including staff costs, was around $25,000—a small investment that may pay off in the long run if the small profits of the eco-tourism site are reinvested to develop the business further.
In the meantime, the traveler who can endure the trip out to Koh Kong’s mangroves knows there is something there to see. But the town is still struggling with the question of how to get people to see it.