Cambodia Investment Review

The Bensley Collection and the changing landscape of eco-tourism in Cambodia

The Bensley Collection and the changing landscape of eco-tourism in Cambodia

Gareth Johnson

The Bensley Collection – Shinta Mani Wild put Cambodia’s eco-tourism sector on the map after being named as one of the best hotels and resorts in the world by Conde Nest Traveler (CNT). CIR Life & Luxury spoke to the founder Bill Bensley and experienced the inspiration behind this unique hotel.

To read our hotel review of the Shinta Mani Wild click here.

The Conde Nast Gold List

While some hotel, resort, and hospitality awards can overplayed the CNT Gold List is a genuinely huge accolade. CNT is owned by Conde Nast a global media group established over a century ago in the United States.

The group gives numerous awards in multiple fields, such as dining and cruises, and it the hotel and resorts gold list that is considered the most prestigious. The Shinta Mani Wild not only regularly makes the gold list – voted by both readers and journalists – but is the only Cambodian entrant currently on the list.

Bill Bensley and the Bensley Collection

Before starting his career in hospitality Bill Bensley studied as a Landscape Architect initially in California then moved to Harvard. Following graduation, he landed a job in Bali, before going on to cement his reputation not only in landscape design but also in the overall design of hotels and resorts.

This eventually led to the creation of the Bensley Collection brand in Thailand that has since expanded to Cambodia with the Shinta Mani Angkor Bensley Collection Pool Villas in Siem Reap, as well as the Shinta Mani Wild, an avowedly eco-friendly resort located on 400 acres of land that straddles two nature reserves in Cambodia.

As well as winning awards for luxury, the resort also boasts the most expensive rooms within the Kingdom ranging from $1,900-$3,000 per night depending on the season.

Bill Bensley Cambodia
American landscape architect, architect, and interior designer Bill Bensley

And it was here that Bill Bensley felt that his Cambodian properties and resorts were helping change the perception of Cambodia as a backpacker venue to one attractive to those on higher budgets.

Speaking to CIR Life & Luxury, Bill Bensley said: “We sincerely hope that we have played some part in changing peoples attitudes, both via our properties, our environmental work and as well as our excellent staff. I regularly get past guests messaging me about how great the service was at our properties and this always makes me smile.

More importantly, we feel we are helping reduce deforestation through our creation of high-yield low impact properties. We hope that our example can help show the powers that be that high-end eco-tourism can be a financially viable alternative to extraction.”

The Shinta Mani Wild not only helps fund the Wildlife Alliance on and beyond its property but also literally turns poachers into gamekeepers with Bill adding: “We are not only trying to set a good example but also give back and show the locals there are alternatives to poaching”.

And it was in this sphere that Bensley felt the future of Cambodian tourism lies. When asked about the rapid urbanization of the Kingdom, as well as a diversification from Angkor War as the central attraction to the county he commented: “I believe this is truly the way forward. Now that the borders have reopened one of my plans is to explore more of Cambodia and see what else is out there.”

Yet while seeing potential growth in the sector it was his current properties that would take precedence for the time being, he explained: “Our current priority is to get our two properties running to full capacity and flourishing. Although with being said I do have a few ideas for expansion.

I would love to create a road connection between Siem Reap and the Shinta Mani Wild using vintage airstream trailers and providing absolute luxury. This will involve stopping on the way at pre-Angkor sites, as well as places of natural beauty to create the ultimate experience.”

As well as focussing on the two properties Bensley is also focused on reopening the renowned Bensley Shinta Mani Foundation Hospitality School

The Shinta Mani school and Cambodian workforce

Being such a prestigious hotel that wins so many accolades obviously takes more than just nice design and fine scenery, with ourselves being able to attest that the resort offer some of the best-trained staff in the country. And it was here where the Bensley Shinta Mani Foundation Hospitality School fits into things.

“When I worked on my first project in Cambodia the Hotel de la Paix (now the Park Hyatt) initially, we could not find a team trained to the high standards we expected, quite simply because they didn’t exist and this was why we created the school.

To read more about the importance of eco-tourism investment in Cambodia click here.

We employ the vast majority of our staff from the local areas and as well as providing free education also offer a stipend for them to support their families. This has the dual effect of us benefiting the local communities, but also ensuring that staff are trained to the levels we require”.

The Shinta Mani Foundation provides locals access to education and opportunities for the betterment of their lives.

Reflecting on the future of eco-tourism within Cambodia Bill remained confident, despite the negative effects the pandemic has had on the industry, instead of seeing it as a potential positive in changing people’s mindsets.

“While Covid played havoc with the industry it has also made people far more aware of eco-tourism. People are prepared to travel further stay longer and support do-good hospitality projects, so that is exactly what we should offer, without greenwashing.

In just 20 years we have gone from third world problems of malnutrition to second world problems of cleaner water and better medical care. We hope to see Cambodia move into having first-world problems of caring about nutrition and conservation. In short, things are very much looking up and we can be confident about growth within the next five years and beyond”.

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