COVID has hit Cambodia where it hurts, but alternative tourism offers an insight into where it didn’t, with sub-sectors such as eco, agro, wellness and domestic all evidencing not only why the Kingdom’s sector must embrace alternatives for sustainability, but how beneficial these can be to realize its new normal potential.
Let’s get the negatives out of the way. A 2017 UNESCO report has already warned that Angkor Wat, a World Heritage Site of Outstanding Universal Value and by far the biggest tourist attraction in Cambodia, could become a victim of its own success.
“The tourism boom and an increasing population are resulting in water shortages, forcing the authorities to tap into the groundwater, dangerously lowering the water table. This poses a threat to [not only] the preservation of terrestrial ecosystems but is causing subsidence of the soil on which [Angkor Wat] stands,” it says, causing damage to the very attractions foundations.
Meanwhile, former major coastal attraction Sihanoukville, once dubbed the new Macao, is now an “almost-permanent construction zone, where bricks and construction materials litter the streets, crime rate grows and the economic gap between the city’s rich and poor widens,” says a 2020 review by responsible tourism site Intrepid Travel.
In fairness, authorities have banned illegal wells in Siem Reap and embarked on large infrastructure projects across both cities, but while new normal social distancing and COVID-19 exists, the honeypots remain largely empty.
Riel-ising changing demand in niche tourism
A report by the World Bank (WB) in 2020 said that sustainability in the Kingdom’s tourist sector means not only developing its sites but expanding visitor options.
“While Angkor Wat in Siem Reap has been the main attraction to Cambodia, statistics show that growth in arrivals to the temple are slowing. Trends of increased visitors to ecotourism sites in Cambodia indicate that ecotourism is a product that could be further developed.”
The report outlined how alternative tourism could help businesses maintain the industry instead while boosting the livelihoods of local communities in more rural areas.
A late 2020 Asian Development Report (ABD) agreed with efforts towards diversification, saying that to revive tourism successfully, “governments, alongside travel and tourism sectors, need to rebuild tourist confidence and encourage innovation and investment for a resilient and sustainable tourism sector.”
Step in the alternatives.
Back to earth
Agri-tourism is loosely defined as tourism involving any agriculturally based operation or activity that brings visitors to a farm – or similar.
According to market analysts Orbis Research (OR), the agritourism market is already expected to grow from some $7.5 billion in 2019 to $11.6 billion by 2025.
“Due to its ability to uncover new market opportunities for farm products and services and its establishment as a viable alternative to sustainable development, [agritourism] is experiencing impressive growth.
Demand has been increased because of the surging demand of tourists for personalized services, unspoiled destinations and in a natural environment including services such as leisure and hospitality business, farm tours, farm product sale, farm accommodation, and few others are offered by agritourism.”
Kosal Farms, is one such agricultural business owner in the Kingdom who has used tourism to not only diversify his income but see the potential agri-based tourism offers the country to diversifying community income and bring home-grown products to market.
Owner and founder Kahn Kosal said there are three main reasons to open his farm up to visitors.
“Firstly, we want to show other farm owners that farming is not just about producing and selling agricultural products; a farm can also be a place for other people, who want to experience farm life and come to relax in a way which we can generate.
Secondly, for people who are interested in agriculture, we want our farm to be an inspiring place in which they can learn, exchange experience and explore agriculture practices and challenges, for their business.”
He said that thirdly, he has a favorable location being at almost at the central point of three well-known destinations of Cambodia – Phnom Penh Capital, Preah Vihear world heritage temple and the world-famous Angkor heritage site.
“We are also located next to 3,000ha of conservative community forest and therefore offer an alternative stop-off point for travelers from or passing through any of the above destinations.”
Kosal said now visitors and travel agents contact the farm to arrange lunch for their guests and they generate new incomes by catering to arrivals, with visitors often asking where to be able to buy our products outside the farm, creating demand for our product.
“Visitors become loyal clients and advertisers who help us to promote our farms and products by spreading their unique experience to their friends and families. This, in turn, provides more employment opportunities for villagers, support livelihoods, reducing migration, keeping their children in school and ensuring knowledge sharing.”
He says diversifying income in agriculture where possible is key to sustainability in the sector long-term, which has been especially important amid COVID-19.
“Innovation at our farm has helped us ensure regular incomes from different sources, minimizing the impact of the pandemic. Our business might have been done if we just relied on one source of income.”
Farmhouse Smiling Gecko, a boutique sustainable resort located around 65 km north of Phnom Penh – has grown from the humble seeds of a local-Swiss initiated NGO seeking to better the opportunism for the poor and underprivileged people living in a rural area in Cambodia offering something quite unique.
The farm-come-project shows perhaps the most complex array of multifaceted initiatives, spanning from horticulture, livestock and poultry breeding, vanilla to scalable upskilling of local communities through onsite carpentry and agri-tourism enterprise endeavors.
Did I mention they also have self-built onsite schooling, which teaches Khmer and international curriculums to over 300 local children and will increase to 1’000?
CEO, Ngon Sokleap, says that the ideation around the project – which now includes a solar farm – is part of a bigger, replicable plan to prove how an NGO’s project activities can progress into social business entities and finally full-time businesses by nurturing the power of local talent.
“Once completed, we call this a ‘Smart Village’, as our core activities are humanitarian aid, life support, agri-business, and manufacturing. We aim to benefit the rural poor as for us, that’s where the issues in Cambodia are. Education is at our centre, which in the future will be fully funded by our onsite enterprise social business development.”
Sokleap says that the project aims to progress from internationally funded roots into a more sustainable and self-reliant entity after knowledge sharing, with a wide range of international partners investors and contributors to the project passable to pass on capacity building.
“This is going to be an almost micro incubator-type project.”
General manager Benjamin Lehmann, in charge of developing tourism development on the site, says scaling through further will ensure wider success.
“In 2014 we started the project, 2016 we started accommodation, first with five houses, then 12 bungalows. Now we have 17 houses altogether with 34 rooms. In four years, we have seen a triple in growth and have been fully booked and constant high occupancy throughout the pandemic.”
International drought and prosper
Lehmann says that pre-pandemic, the resort relied on international tourism.
“COVID has seen us increase domestic interest to over 60 percent of our business, with the corporate meeting, incentives, conference, and exhibitions (MICE) a huge area of interest growth.”
“To spend your money here is an experience because the food is a journey through our history as everything is grown on-site. While our accommodation is built also by our project and beneficiary staff, offering a fully locally orientated unique immersion.”
He said that now, local and international MICE will be a big market for us as it attracts the kind of customer who books out our entire resort, and we are catering to that. They spend more on packages that allow us to grow and in turn, give back.
“In fact, the farmhouse has registered full accommodation every weekend amid the pandemic, according to Lehmann, due to the unique offerings of Smiling Gecko despite the tourist lull,” he said.
Speaking about diversifying tourism in Cambodia, Lehmann says that the more you diversify and provide a different kind of experience improves how attractive you are to consumers.
According to OR, due to the impact of various determinants such as a desire to find solace, nature-friendly means and rising curiosity among tourists regarding the agriculture industry & lifestyle, agritourism is expected to grow at a significant rate during the upcoming years.
It also has the added benefit of attracting both international and domestic tourists alike.
A UNWTO report evidenced that domestic tourism accounted for double the number of tourists in 2019, recording some 11.2 million domestic visitor trips in Cambodia, nearly twice the 6.2 million inbound visitor trips that year.
The International Social Tourism Organisation (ISTO) agreed that domestic tourism remains a tangible solution for the sector as banking on international tourist arrivals is much more problematic, with domestic tourism providing far more benefits, says the
“At the quantitative level, domestic tourism is a lot more important because of the number of travelers it generates. Associated spending of those travelers means the average growth is more compared to international tourism.”
“However, most importantly, it is linked to the qualitative aspects. Locals have a better knowledge of the socio-cultural environment and a greater demand for quality services, products and activities, thus reducing congestion.
The social composition of tourists is much broader, the report said, and that diversity stimulates different types of demands with fostering the development of different types of products.”
Valentina Miniyeva, who has been organizing tropical jungle expeditions for ex-pats, film crews, research scientists and tourists since 2005 says although the pandemic had an impact on her business, she has found a way to diversify her product while safeguarding adventures for explorers.
“Initially, without the turnover of international tourists, I was left without work. But I quickly realized that local ex-pats and the urban population – especially in the capital – still want to travel safely and locally.”
She says the idea behind ‘Phnom Penh one-day trips’ encapsulates small group adventures to destinations around 100km from the capital for Cambodian residents to get their tourism fix.
“The gap in the market led me to develop routes to beautiful natural places that you can get to and spend time for one day and then return to city. During COVID, people enjoy the chance to meet each other safely. I facilitate this in tight groups on hiking trips, in a way people can trust.
“Also, supporting the local community in the provinces I organize my tours in ensures a big return here. Ultimately, people who want to see nature pay money for it and that’s important for locals at this time.”
From the Cardamom Mountains and Kravan Mountains to the Elephant Mountains, Kirirom National park, and Phnom Aoral sanctuary, Valentina says there are many local sites to enjoy which are just a few hours away from the capital, which is why this type of tourism should be developed, especially now.
ADB said: “based on the emerging examples, economic incentives and trust between partners are the decisive factors in establishing travel bubbles or green corridors. Economic considerations include the importance of the partner to economic relations as well as for tourism. Trust is needed to ensure effective control and management of COVID-19.
A ‘peace’ of mindful travel
Wellness tourism, a concept very much ingrained in the region’s cultural and religious history, offers another branch to tourist diversification, with holistic orientated holidays a huge immerging sector globally.
According to the Global Wellness Institue (GWI) said: “The wellness concept is transforming almost every aspect of travel and wellness tourism will only grow faster in years ahead, as it lies at the powerful intersection of two massive, booming industries: the $2.6 trillion tourism industry and the $4.2 trillion wellness market.”
General manager of Navutu resort and wellness retreat in Cambodia, Jeremie Clement, said the experience encompasses much more than an average trip, with the focus on rejuvenating, recharging and rebalancing to bring about a positive change in one’s health.
“Although the sector has gained increasing traction in nearby places like Bali, it is still relatively new to Cambodia. When we incorporated wellness into Navutu in 2012, we were the first in Cambodia to start to explore this market.”
“Now, wellness tourism attracts many more people to Cambodia who before may have just come to see the temples and moved on, but who now stay and enjoy such experiences and activities as part of their journey.”
Indeed, in a global population looking for pandemic respite, wellness tourism appears positioned to be mutually beneficial for both businesses and consumers, proving overall more lucrative according to the GWI report – with wellness-seeking tourists spending on average over 30 percent more than the average tourist.
“Not only is wellness tourism a sizable and high-growth market, it is also high-yield compared with the general tourism sector. [Pre-pandemic] the average wellness-based trip spending in Cambodia was $1,029, which is over $300 more than the average trip spends, at $694. Equally, domestic wellness tourism saw higher spends trip, with wellness trips spends averaging $95 while average trip spends averaged $60.
American born Cambodian Rich Chan, says he has now visited wellness retreats around the world after becoming increasingly unhappy in his profession as a car salesman in the US
“Through traveling, I found out the thing I was “missing” from my life and I knew instinctively that coming to the retreat centre would allow me the space to do lots of healing; mentally, spiritually, physically and emotionally.
“I consider investing money in retreat centres a huge return on investment for my health and wellbeing. There is nowhere in our busy lives to slow down and be silent, you can’t put a price on stillness of the mind and that is what retreat centres offer training in,” he added.
Indeed, the demand has propelled the expansion of wellness tourism offerings, with resorts looking to capitalize on fuller wellness programs.
Clement said: “It can include healthy eating, traditional remedies, energy healings, Chinese medicine, realignment techniques, sound and vibration work, meditation yoga, pilates, qi gong… the list is endless.”
Enlightenment X social benefit
Hanchey Bamboo Resort, has utilized the growth of wellness tourism to benefit its community-orientated operations, building local impact at its NGO core to spur positive local change.
Founded by local NGO Buddhism for Social Development Action (BSDA), it aims to integrate disadvantaged youth into work life, with the resort offering hospitality training for beneficiaries of BSDA while simultaneously offering tourists the chance to meet and contribute to the development of the young people’s lives, during their resort experience.
Co-general manager, Daro Oun, said that essentially, they are a wellness tourist experience with luxury bungalows, but each area of the resort is designed to give back.
“Our resort is built using traditional, eco-friendly building materials which have a minimum impact on the land. We have a training centre for local students and interaction with tourists helps them the chance to improve in areas such as English speaking and hospitality upskilling.”
Adding benefit to their operations, co-general manager Léa Lang said: “People who are interested in wellness often care about the eco and social impact, so our resort offers a positive and immersive experience which appeals to our demographic.”
Pandemic aside, improving tourist sector sustainability is clearly paramount for Cambodia moving forward. As the country looks to resume its year-on-year economic development, diversification will be key.
However, perhaps the above shows just how the country can capitalize on niche sub-sectors sprouting nationwide to see more lucrative and long-term tourist arrivals which connect not only with Cambodia’s rich cultural past, but its promising present.