Chambok Community Based Eco-Tourism was one of the finalists in the Engaging Communities category of the 2017 National Geographic World Legacy Awards hosted at ITB Berlin.
“Long before Cambodia’s Ministry of Tourism embraced ecotourism, a visionary NGO launched a project to lift the community of Chambok out of poverty through sustainable travel. Today, Chambok Community Based Eco-Tourism (CBET) is entirely responsible for its own management and operations. When Mlup Baitong began, villagers with no income-generating alternatives engaged in illegal logging, charcoal and fuel-wood production, and wildlife hunting. More than half of the population has since joined the CBET, trained in ecotourism skills, and received initial infrastructure improvement support.” National Geographic
For this interview, which is part of a series with all the finalists for this year’s National Geographic World Legacy Awards, Anula Galewska speaks with Touch Morn, Chambok Community Leader.
ANULA: Why did you enter this award?
TOUCH: We wanted to honor the great achievements of our local community in starting and running their ecotourism site. Since the early days more than 10 years ago, the community in Chambok has worked very hard and made huge steps towards becoming a community-based ecotourism site where both the people and nature benefit from tourism. Today, it serves as a successful role model in Cambodia and the region.
Additionally, we hope that more international tourists, tour operators and like-minded organizations become aware of our site as a great destination to spend a holiday, and for exchanging ideas and success stories.
ANULA: What positive impacts have your efforts to be a sustainable tourism business had on the communities and region where you operate?
TOUCH: The site is generating profits for the community members which improve their livelihoods and support poverty reduction. The community uses 40% of incomes for the conservation and protection of their site, 25% for supporting vulnerable members, 20% for a community development fund, and 15% for a reserve fund. Savings from the community development fund are for example put into supporting activities of local Women Self Help Groups, health projects, micro enterprise projects, and developing a community water supply system to provide clean and safe drinking water.
In order to protect their environment, the community established a conservation area covering more than 1,200 ha of rainforest. Its management plan ensures sustainable use of the area and reserves parts of the forest for conservation, and parts for tourism. The whole area is patrolled by community members to prevent illegal activities. A tree nursery grows saplings for reforestation of degenerated parts of the natural forest and explains visitors about the forest. This has a positive impact not only on the community, but also on threatened species in the region, and increases environmental awareness of both local and international tourists. To build on this success, the community has requested to put an additional area of more than 2,000 ha of rainforest under their management for conservation and protection.
ANULA: How do you engage with the local community to ensure they have a positive opinion of your business working in the area they live?
TOUCH: All staff, tour guides and service providers are members of the local community, and all businesses within the site are owned and operated by community members. In fact, all management and operations are run by the site’s management committee, consisting exclusively of villagers from Chambok commune. We chose the concept of community-based eco-tourism in order to enable the poor forestry community members a full ownership and participation in the management and operation of the site and to reach their objective to protect the natural forest while improving their livelihoods.
ANULA: How do you communicate to guests about your responsible tourism practices?
TOUCH: Responsible tourism is the red thread running through all of what we do, starting by the name Chambok Community-Based Ecotourism. We inform guests about our purpose and philosophy, and how the concept of sustainable tourism is implemented in Chambok. Tourists are always in direct contact with community members, e.g. through guided treks ranging from 1-6 days, ox-cart rides, traditional handicraft making, dance performances, cooking classes using local ingredients and traditional preparation methods, and sleeping at local home stays. This gives visitors a chance to meet and interact closely with local people. Most of the tourists who visit us come for the purpose of experiencing rural Cambodian life, getting in touch with nature and contributing to conservation.
ANULA: How do you make sure your staff care about your efforts and support them?
TOUCH: All staff are members of the local community, thus directly managing and benefitting from all activities. In the initial phase of developing the site, the community members decided on their goal for the site: to empower community members to actively participate in sustainable management of natural resources for their livelihood development and poverty reduction. To achieve this goal, they decided to protect forests and natural resources, provide income generating alternatives to poverty-stricken and forest-products-dependent communities, and to educate local people and visitors about environmental conservation. Today, the community members realize that an intact nature when managed well can contribute to improving their livelihoods and generating income.
ANULA: What’s the best lesson you have learned over the years of developing a successful sustainable tourism business?
TOUCH: To develop the Chambok ecotourism site, we used a participatory approach. All members were involved in every stage of the site’s development.
Ownership, decisions, and all benefits are kept within the community in a transparent manner, and their work is characterized by commitment and solidarity. Although this approach is time-consuming, it has been very successful as it ensures local empowerment and long-lasting benefits.
It starts with environmental awareness raising, requiring the motivation of local communities and authorities, and takes into account existing capacities and limitations. In this way we have learned that working directly with and through the community members is the best option. Additionally, the motivation, participation and contribution from local and international visitors are fundamental factors for the success of this sustainable tourism site.
As this concept has been very successful, we are now developing similar sites in different parts of Cambodia. One is located at a coastal conservation area for Sarus Cranes, the tallest flying birds in the world. Two more are located in the Cardamom mountains as well as along the Mekong river, featuring one of the last populations of the endangered Irrawaddy dolphin.
This article is part of the interview series with the National Geographic World Legacy Awards 2017 winners and finalists, with whom we explore the best practices in sustainable tourism communications and stakeholders’ engagement.