THE EXPLOSION of the global middle class has been a boon for the Southeast Asian tourism industry.
Especially tourists from China have become a familiar sight around the region as more Chinese can afford trips abroad.
However, while tourism can be a major driver for growth when done correctly, it can cause negative impacts if not, and Cambodia is a prime example of how the influx of tourists is adversely affecting local communities.
Owing to Cambodia’s popularity, the rise of Chinese tourism has placed heavy strain on the social cohesion of local communities. In 2018, two million Chinese tourists visited Cambodia, up 70% from a year earlier. This number is expected to reach three million by 2020. But as tourist numbers grow, so does the adverse impact on Cambodians – and the environment.
Emblematic for these developments is Sihanoukville, a prime destination spot for many Chinese tourists and which reflects many of the problems unsustainable tourism brings.
Chinese investment has flooded into Cambodia’s coastal provinces in recent years thanks to the area’s convenient location and the openness of authorities to activities such as gambling. Once a popular holiday destination for locals, they are now deterred from visiting by the rising costs of food and accommodation.
Particularly worrisome is the fact that the construction of new hotels is proceeding at the expense of the country’s forests. Locals and environmentalists alike have criticised the extraction of a huge number of Siamese rosewood that is growing in the area– a timber eagerly sought out by Chinese consumers. The deforestation is expected to make the country more vulnerable to the disastrous effects of climate change.
Furthermore, local Cambodians aren’t even deriving much economic benefit from the influx of tourists. Relentless pollution of Cambodia’s waters is destroying the livelihoods of local fishermen, while the city is now drowning in plastic waste.
For all the investment pouring in, the town continues to suffer from a lack of systemised waste collection as well as a total absence of a water filtration system. Consequently, the population of Sihanoukville is forced to rely on bottled water, extending the cycle in perpetuity.
The loss to the community is exacerbated by the fact that Chinese tourists, say local business owners, have a distinct preference for Chinese-owned-and-run businesses, from restaurants to hotels, tourist shops to tour businesses. As ecologist Bill Laurance notes, “when operating overseas, Chinese companies also prefer to hire Chinese nationals as employees whenever possible, rather than employing local residents.”
Walking the line
There is, however, another way: the rise of eco-tourism or sustainable tourism means the industry is no longer a “factory without a chimney” – if appropriate measures are taken and new concepts are implemented. Ever more investors are seeking out ways to make resort tourism more sustainable, as consumers become more environmentally conscious and awareness of climate change increases.
There are a few big investors who have taken steps to make a positive impact on the environment. For example, eBay’s first president Jeff Skoll, through his Skoll Foundation, invests exclusively in private companies that pioneer climate and sustainability solutions. Twitter cofounder Evan Williams has also made “world positive” investments to increase sustainability of food supplies, a crucial aspect in poverty reduction.
However, it is eco-tourism that is really kicking off. Eco-tourism firm Meridian Adventure, an initiative by Meridian Capital Limited owner Askar Alshinbayev, for instance, seeks to create “experiential ocean adventures” in the Southeast Asian Pacific region for guests of the Meridian Adventure Resort in Raja Ampat, West Papua, and a commitment to sustainable practices.
According to the tourism company, reusable steel straws, reusable non-plastic bags, reusable non-plastic water bottles and a trash collection bag on each dive boat is par for the course for this new wave of hospitality.
Other tour guide companies like Inside Asia are also adopting a more deliberate approach to sustainable tourism to ensure clients are given the chance to have a positive “social, environmental and economic impact on the destinations they visit.” African safari group Singita has had early success in raising funds for conservation management via the support of a wealthy American philanthropist and other individual investors.
Lindblad Expeditions in the Galápagos Islands has taken the same approach with same endemic ecosystems that led Charles Darwin to develop his theory of evolution.
Reducing our impact
An important common aspect of this new approach to tourism is that it goes far beyond that of individualised waste reduction, but instead, the movement’s desired impact is a community-oriented one. Meridian Adventure and Inside Asia claim that their business model takes into account the needs not only of the guests but of the local community as well, so that each party can play their role in nature conservation. According to Meridian principal Yevgeniy Feld, the objectives are underpinned by the view that tourism should help conservation and leave “a limited footprint where we and our guests travel.”
Eco-tourism has only just begun to catch the eye of investors keen to finance sustainable development, conservation efforts, land rehabilitation and wildlife reintroduction. For countries like Cambodia, eco-tourism offers an opportunity and new hope for balancing economic imperatives and protect nature. A growing number of green initiatives is moving to the fore, the public and private sector need to be encouraged to invest in ensuring tourism is made far more sustainable.
If adequately supported, the fragile communities and ecosystems of Southeast Asia may finally be able to strike a balance between valuable tourist dollars and natural conservation.