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‘Preah-ducing’ Hopes: Community-based Ecotourism in Preah Rumkel

Updated: Dec 27, 2020


ABOUT | Preah Rumkel is home to many species of plant life and wildlife like Irrawaddy dolphins. The villagers embarked on community-based ecotourism (CBET) to sustain both the environment and their livelihood. This article illustrates changes that CBET has brought about and challenges that they face in implementing the CBET.

Team members: 
Leong Kah Heng, Teoh Jun Yi, En Chhunna, Sem Ratha

INTRODUCTION


Preah Rumkel is situated in the Thalaborat district of Stung Treng province. The village abuts one upstream section of the Mekong River, which is home to numerous native flora and fauna, including critically endangered Irrawaddy dolphins and rare plant species such as Por and Chiray.


A statue of an Irrawaddy Dolphin, which alarms the dwindling number of the dolphins


Mr. Vanna, the former Chief of the community-based ecotourism initiative in Preah Rumkel, points to tree species called Por and Chiray. These species are native to this flooded forest, which is inscribed in the list of Wetlands of International Importance (the Ramsar List).


In 2007, Mlup Baitong, a Cambodian non-profit NGO, embarked on community-based ecotourism (CBET) with the objective of effectively conserving the natural environment while improving the overall standard of living. Their approach is unique in that they leverage CBET as a heuristic tool to encourage villagers themselves to seek balanced ways of using resources available.


In September 2018, we set out on a short expedition in the precinct and conversed with a couple of villagers to uncover their thoughts and perspectives on whether the promotion of ecotourism has benefited the community or not. This article discusses what changes CBET has brought about to people of Preah Rumkel and what challenges they face in implementing CBET.


ASPIRATIONS AND EXPECTATIONS FOR CBET


According to the locals, the implementation of CBET and the resulting transformation of Preah Rumkel into a quaint tourist destination have improved their quality of life over the past years. They are able to draw in more earnings through tourism and no longer need to rely heavily on farming and fishing for subsistence. Our homestay host, Ms. Chanduon, shared that, although she still fished and planted dragon fruit and rice crops to support her family, tourist receipts supplemented her income quite a fair bit.

Our homestay host, Ms. Chanduon and her daughter was bashfully telling us that she would hope to work together with other villagers to attract more tourists to Preah Rumkel. She even has the intention to expand her house to host more tourists, given that she has established a reputation for her homestay business.


Similarly, Ms. Nin mentioned that her income improved significantly after starting her homestay business. She is even able to support her three children for their studies abroad! Now, a proud owner of a 5-star lodging in Preah Rumkel, Ms. Nin served homemade rice wine while we chatted with her.


The Preah Rumkel village chief (left) and Ms. Nin (right) shared their common goal to protect the natural habitat and wildlife in Preah Rumkel.


Other villagers also expressed their aspirations and expectations for CBET. When we asked Chumpa, a 15-year-old tourist guide, about what changes he would like to see in his community in the future, he replied without any hesitation, “I hope there will be better transport infrastructure and improved sanitation.”  Mr. Vanna, the former Chief of the CBET initiative, enthusiastically talked about his desires for more equitable community involvement, more home-stays, and improved quality of services.


Chumpa, a 15-year-old boy, who takes pride in showing tourists around the village.


INTERNAL CONFLICT OF INTEREST


Despite the collective efforts and aspirations for CBET, there seems to be an undercurrent of animosity between the villagers and the CBET committee that becomes a barrier to the achievement of CBET’s goals as a whole. It seems that this tension is caused by their different expectations of what CBET actually entails. The CBET committee understands CBET to be a means of protecting the environment by providing alternative livelihoods for the locals. In contrast, the locals have a much shallower understanding with several interviewees sharing that they did not know what CBET meant besides providing home-stays and welcoming tourists warmly. Perhaps the different expectations point to unclear communication between the committee and villagers.


In helping dissolve this ongoing rift, we suggested that they have transparent two-way communications between the committee and villagers. Unfortunately, we were not around long enough to see this suggestion through. However, when we proposed this idea to several interviewees, it was regarded rather warmly with many of them agreeing that it is an important first step to bringing Preah Rumkel’s CBET to greater heights. A couple of interviewees expressed hesitation that communication can ever truly be open. However, we can only keep faith and hope for seamless cooperation between community members and leaders.


The headquarter of the CBET committee located in the village centre.


EXTERNAL CHALLENGES


CBET in Preah Rumkel also faces externally-induced challenges; the construction of the Don Sahong Dam in the upstream of the Mekong River has led to unprecedented bank erosions, occasional floods, and the demise of the Irrawaddy dolphins (see other blogs for greater details). Moreover, according to Ms. Mom who sells food and beverage at the village centre, such environmental deteriorations have taken tourists away from Preah Rumkel.


Villagers and practitioners are so concerned about the future of Preah Rumkel as an ecotourism destination that they have raised this issue to the CBET committee. However, the committee is powerless in lobbying against the Don Sahong Dam construction.


PAVING THE WAY FOR A BETTER FUTURE


Nonetheless, ecotourism will remain an important income source in the short to medium term, and we thus support the idea of improving tourism infrastructure. A fundamental improvement that needs to be considered would be the construction of boat docks and staircases up to the island from the dock. From our individual experiences, getting onto islands proved to be quite challenging; the sand in these riverine islands is too fine and soft.


Another way forward to helping tourists would be to create a map that depicts the locations of various CBET attractions. During our boat trip, it was difficult to spatially situate our eco-tour within a wider region of the Mekong due to the lack of reference maps. Illustrating possible routes and required time of travelling between the attractions in the map would undeniably aid tourists in planning their day trips.


An example of the tourist map that features key landmarks and attraction sites in Preah Rumkel (Authors’ creation based on [1], [2], [3], [4], [5], [6], [7], [8], [9] and [10])


Moreover, we recommend that the CBET committee looks to spruce up existing sheds. Some of the islands we visited are already equipped with resting facilities that could be used by tourists. They are, however, poorly maintained.


A shed situated at the entrance of the village, with the banner reading “River: Connecting people, tourism, culture and environment”


CONCLUDING THOUGHTS


Overall, Preah Rumkel proved to be an attractive village with interesting activities to offer. While it is a pity that it is under threat by the construction of the Don Sahong Dam, we sincerely hope that the community will become more resilient to such threats and that the collective dream to propel CBET will not remain a distant one!

Keeping in mind CBET’s aim to both sustain the environment and improve the living standard, we highly support the idea that the local community takes an initiative to play ecotourism. After all, CBET is not a luxury but indispensable to the further development of the village.

 

REFERENCES


  1. Google, 2018, Google Maps, https://www.google.com/maps/place/Preah+Rumkel+Community+Based+Ecotourism+Food+Store/@13.9283193,105.9468322,17z/data=!3m1!4b1!4m5!3m4!1s0x3113055d0498900f:0x90abf9842a2764e1!8m2!3d13.9283141!4d105.9490263, accessed on 1 November, 2018.

  2. CBET HQ flat icon, n.d., European Commission, International Cooperation and Development, https://ec.europa.eu/europeaid/sectors/environment_en, accessed on 1 November 2018.

  3. Boat dock flat icon, n.d., PNG Tree, https://pngtree.com/free-icon/wooden-boat_379302,  accessed on 1 November, 2018.

  4. Dolphin watching hotspot flat icon, n.d., Vector Stock, https://www.vectorstock.com/royalty-free-vector/dolphin-flat-icon-vector-4722909, accessed on 1 November 2018.

  5. RAMSAR site flat icon, n.d., Flat Icon, https://www.flaticon.com/free-icon/wetland_190906, accessed on 1 November 2018.

  6. Bird watching hotspot flat icon, n.d., Vector Stock, https://www.vectorstock.com/royalty-free-vector/dolphin-flat-icon-vector-4722909, accessed on 1 November 2018.

  7. Yellow Homestay lodging flat icon, n.d., Free Icon Shop, https://freeiconshop.com/icon/home-icon-flat/, accessed on 1 November 2018.

  8. Green Homestay lodging flat icon, n.d., Icon Archive, http://www.iconarchive.com/show/flat-icons-by-flat-icons.com/Cabin-icon.html, accessed on 1 November 2018.

  9. Tractor riding flat icon, n.d., Icons for Free, http://icons-for-free.com/icon/farming_tractor_vehicle_icon_1054956.html, accessed on 1 November 2018.

  10. Rest area flat icon, n.d., Icons for Free, http://icons-for-free.com/icon/farming_tractor_vehicle_icon_1054956.html, accessed on 1 November 2018.

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