Sustainable tourism in Cambodia

In 2018, Cambodia welcomed more than 6 million international tourists. This number is expected to rise to at least 10 million by 2025, representing an increase of 600% compared to 2005 according to the Ministry of Tourism. With this influx of tourists also comes negative impact on the environment, local economy and culture. But not all hopes are lost ! More and more sustainable initiatives, engaged in reducing their environmental impact while supporting the local communities, are emerging and prospering in the Kingdom of Wonder, and can help you in reducing your impact while traveling.

Picture of the sun rising over Angkor Wat in Siem Reap (with a lot of tourists)on March 22 2018.
The sun rises over the central stupa of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap in March 2018, with a lot of tourists here to immortalize the scene. © AFP

Why choose sustainable tourism?

There is no point in denying that tourism has undeniable advantages: it creates jobs, generates significant incomes, encourages civic involvement and provides cultural exchange between hosts and guests. But it can also cause many problems.

Environmental impact on the destination

Tourism can pose a strain on natural resources, the surrounding environment, and the common heritage. The most important environmental impact being pollution, including air pollution (e.g. air travel emissions of carbon dioxide), ground pollution (e.g. plastic waste), or noise pollution. Furthermore, ancient buildings, monuments, and temples often struggle to cope with the vast amount of tourists. This entails wear and tear on those buildings, as this is the case at Angkor Wat as some visitors touch the sculpture and walk on ancient path. An article from The Conversation actually reported that the hotels and illicit tapping of water around the site are affecting the stability of the antique structure.

Picture of the traditional boats in the port of Sihanoukville gradually being replaced by cranes and container ships.
The traditional boats in the port of Sihanoukville are gradually being replaced by cranes and container ships. © JOC

Revenues not benefiting entirely the local economy

Cambodia’s tourism sector earned $3.63 billion in revenue in 2017, representing an increase of 13% compared to 2016, according to the same report from the Ministry of Tourism. There is therefore no denial that tourism is an important source of income for the country. However, as it is the case in many developing countries, the money generated by tourism is concentrated in major cities and often owned by foreign companies (e.g. travel agencies, hotels, restaurants). This leaves local businesses with relatively little benefits, as this was already reported by the Cambodian Daily in 2016.

Loss of cultural identity

The socio-cultural environment of a country can be impacted by tourism. The intrusion of “outsiders” in the area may disturb the local culture as the people may copy tourists’ lifestyles. This can be positive when related to human rights or other positive developments, as much as it can be negative when concerning the heavy consumption of alcohol or drugs by tourists, which can influence young people living there. Indeed, if you happen to walk around Pub Street in Siem Reap at night, it is not unusual to witness a group of tourists visibly tipsy stumbling and struggling to hop on a tuk-tuk.

Pictur eof Pub Street, a very popular spot in Siem Reap among foreign tourists once night has come.
Pub Street is a very popular spot in Siem Reap among foreign tourists

This is why, despite being an eye opener to other cultures, tourism might have unintended impact on the destination.To quote one famous saying in Asia, “Tourism is like fire, it can either cook the meal, or burn the house“. Fortunately, we see a spike in initiatives that aim to reduce this impact while also providing tourists with a unique experience.

Graphic depicting the negative impacts of tourism.

What exactly is sustainable tourism?

Sustainable tourism combines the joy of traveling while minimizing your environmental impact and maximizing your suppport to the local communities.

According to The United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), sustainable tourism is mainly about focusing on the three following areas:

  •  Reduce the strain on environmental resources (e.g. water, energy) while helping protect natural heritage (such as the Angkor Temples);
  •  Respect the socio-cultural authenticity (e.g. traditions, cultures) of host communities;
  •  Ensure fairly distributed economic benefits to all actors such as local communities, therefore contributing to poverty alleviation.
Graphic depicting the benefits induced by sustainable tourism.
Some benefits induced by sustainable tourism on the environment, the economy and the culture of the destination.

How does sustainable tourism work in practice?

You can see that sustainable tourism is not that straightforward. Indeed, it is not only about reducing your social and environmental impact but it is also about providing economic benefits to the local population. Here are some tips to combine both:

Recycle

             Reduce your waste by bringing your straw anywhere you go (you can show it to the waiter/waitress for them to understand better than if you only say “no straw”). Bring a reusable bag and a bottle with you and refill your bottles for free by going to RefillNotLandfill partners. And if you are located in Siem Reap, read our post about being zero waste in the city !

Be respectful

            Do not use more energy or water than you need. You can reduce energy by switching off lights and closing windows if air conditioning is on, and take shorter showers.

Be respectful

             Respect local heritage and culture by staying in indicated areas, not throwing rubbish away and dress appropriately. You can even help clean the sites by collecting the lost water bottles and bags that you see around! And if you plan on visiting Angkor during your stay, here is a code of conduct made by APSARA Authority. 

Be benefical

              Favor places created by the local communities or that benefit them directly while paying attention to their environmental impact. You can check for instance Cam Conscious or our website for sustainable initiatives to visit!

Buy local

              Support local producers and services, experience the true flavour of what Cambodia has to offer! Check out the stores listed in our platform to see what places sell locally made goods.

Be child safe

              Be child safe. Unfortunately, significant growth in tourism has transformed Cambodia into one of the hotspots for sexual exploitation of children. It is therefore important to encourage supportive businesses that demonstrate a commitment to taking a leading role in child protection.

In brief, sustainable tourism allows you to discover another culture and all the opportunities that a country has to offer (especially one as beautiful as Cambodia) AND to respect as much as possible the environment and the local population. This makes traveling even more enjoyable for you, for the locals and for the planet!

Did you like this article? Do you have any thought and tips about being a more sustainable traveler in Cambodia? Don’t hesitate to share them in the comment below !

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