Search
  • River Wetlands

Ecotourism?: Koh Trong Island's Unique Blend Of Community-based Tourism

Updated: Dec 27, 2020


A short boat ride from the town of Kratie is the peaceful and scenic island of Koh Trong. Motorbike taxi and tuk-tuk drivers greet you at the port. “Homestay?” they ask. Past them is a row of large sign boards that read: Koh Trong Community-based Ecotourism. You follow them to the Information Centre, which is the tourism visitor centre you needed. Behind you, a uniformed lady is speaking to a group of local tourists in Khmer‒they seem to be renting bicycles to tour the island. And it is at this moment you suddenly realise that you, despite not knowing Khmer, had been reading and hearing perfectly well. The signs were in English.


Koh Trong’s Community-based Ecotourism Information Centre near the jetty


The island doesn’t seem too commercialised. Apart from this small corner which caters to tourists like you, there aren’t hoards of tourists vying for the most Instagram-worthy shots in the neighbouring pagoda or souvenir shops selling tacky-looking keychains of Irrawaddy dolphins. There is only a row of unassuming hawkers in the distance. Perhaps it would have been entirely different during the peak tourist season, so you count your blessings. The “ecotourism” label has been used and overused everywhere, but the apparent lack of cars and the genuine smiles you have received from the locals give you hope that maybe, Koh Trong has succeeded.


FINDING "ECO" IN COMMUNITY-BASED ECOTOURISM


Ecotourism, as defined by academics, is: “Leisure travel that has the object of enjoying features of what is seen as the natural environment in a way that has minimal negative consequences for the environment.”[1]

We encountered quite a number of foreign tourists touring the island on bicycles, despite it being the off-peak visitor season. Most of them discovered Koh Trong by chance when passing through Kratie to see the Irrawaddy dolphins or to other parts of Cambodia. They did not seem to associate Koh Trong with “ecotourism” nor did the thought of “ecotourism” pass through their minds while they were there.

Most visitors enjoy Koh Trong’s natural and rural landscape by cycling around the island


However, locals feel otherwise, collectively thinking of their tourism venture as “ecotourism”.


“[Ecotourism in Koh Trong is] the fresh air, natural landscapes and good environment. People in the village are also friendly and welcoming to tourists,” according to On Paree, the Ecotourism Committee Representative. Others have cited similar reasons pertaining to: “fresh air”, “white sands”, “organic food”, “pomelos” or the “absence of pollutants and chemicals”. However, the need to minimize environmental harm was not mentioned despite being a key aspect of ecotourism.


Perhaps tourism in Koh Trong should be framed as “nature-based tourism” (tourism related to experiencing nature) instead, or just “community-based tourism”, which the island deservingly won the ASEAN Tourism Standard Award for in 2017.


KOH-LLABORATING FOR TOURISM


At first glance, everything seems to start from the information centre. Located at the jetty‒the island’s sole entryway‒it is usually the first stop for visitors. There, staff provide information and coordinate with relevant tourism business owners according to the visitors’ needs.


Attractions include riding motorbikes, bicycles, horse or oxcarts, homestays and tree planting


More often than not, tourists also find themselves being transferred from one tourism activity to another‒they just have to ask‒because local tourism businesses already know each other personally. Informal collaborations are common, creating a seamless visitor experience.


The center of Koh Trong’s community-based ecotourism is its homestays, run by local families who open their homes to visitors for overnight stays. Bopha*, owner of one of the five homestays on the island, recounts how the Ecotourism Committee approved her request to become a homestay host, “Tourists who visited said my house is clean, beautiful and suitable to open a homestay.” The homestays on the island are characterized by similar beginnings; another homestay owner said that her house was selected to be the first homestay as they had “toilets and a clean environment.”


Group picture with our awesome homestay family, with our sleeping quarters in the background.


The homestay hosts are also at the forefront of ‘public relations’ for the island, hence, it is important for them to leave a positive impression on their guests. For instance, telling their guests that they use home-grown vegetables in their cooking reinforces the impression of a more authentic and eco-friendly community-based “ecotourism” experience.


IMPACTING THE COMMUNITY IN COMMUNITY-BASED ECOTOURISM


In Koh Trong, locals unanimously agree that community-based tourism has had a positive impact on their lives, despite minor disagreements on how to best run some aspects of it.


“Yes, we welcome tourists, and we want more tourists," locals tell us with a smile.

Whenever tourists spend money on activities managed by the Ecotourism Committee, a small fraction is donated to the community fund, which supports the less privileged. For example, USD$1 out of USD$15 earned from an oxcart ride goes to the fund.


More visitors also means more opportunities to make money. For Mony*, opening her home to tourists is a good way for her to support her family as she is too old to continue earning a living from farming. Pich* and the seven other members of the horsecart committee, on the other hand, simply saw a business opportunity and rode on it.



Locals horsecart-owners can earn additional income by joining the horsecart riding business


Even those who were not directly involved in tourism activities benefit from the industry, albeit to a smaller extent.


The 9-km concrete road, which runs along the island’s perimeter, was initially paved with contributions from all locals to give tourists easy access when cycling around the island. Now, it is regularly used by locals for daily commute. Ratana*, who operates a shop at the port, recalls that the path used to be a muddy dirt path. "I'm very happy that the road is much better than before.”


Locals carrying out road repair works. Some segments of the route are also being expanded to accommodate two-way traffic.


During the tourist peak season, Ratana’s shop also receives more tourist patrons. Other locals also set up shop to sell local produce on the exposed sandbanks during that time, she tells us.


Directly breaking into the tourism industry, however, does not seem to be an option for those of lower income. To start up their homestays, Mony and Bopha each had to take a loan of about USD$800 to equip their houses with the necessary furniture to welcome guests. People like Pich, who run horse and oxcart riding businesses, already had cattle and horses of their own.


“I would like to make my house a homestay, but my house is too narrow and I will have to borrow money from the bank. But I’m still happy that tourists come, because the others can make money,” said Sothy*, who was not involved in the tourism business.


RETHINKING T(H)RONGS OF TOURISTS

Looking at the statistics, community-based tourism seems to be going in the direction the locals are hoping for. “This year tourist numbers have swelled to 17,000 visitors and 600 foreign visitors!” On Paree remarks with pride, sharing the aspiration for more tourists in Koh Trong.

Yet, the community has to start re-examining its desire for more tourists soon, despite the general optimism. Examples elsewhere show that overcapacity can lead to physical and environmental degradation of tourism sites, and a loss of social, cultural and economic systems in host communities[2]. Although judging from the warm smiles and welcoming demeanor of the locals towards the tourists, including ourselves, it seems that Koh Trong is still operating within its carrying capacity. It is therefore up to the managing committee to plan with foresight, such that Koh Trong can continue to be an exemplary community-based tourism site for many years to come.


AUTHOR'S NOTE

(*) Names have been altered to protect the privacy of our interviewees.

 

REFERENCES

  1. West, P., & Carrier, J. G. (2004). Ecotourism and Authenticity. Current Anthropology, 45(4), 483–498.

  2. O’Reilly, A. M. (1986). Tourism carrying capacity: Concept and issues. Tourism Management, 7(4), 254–258.